Review: Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in rep until October 5. Box office: 01723 370541 or at

ALAN Ayckbourn had spent Thursday afternoon launching his first novel, The Divide, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

A debut novel to go with his 83rd play in his 80th birthday year as he notches up the big numbers in 2019 almost on a par with Aussie batsman Steve Smith.

Originally Sir Alan had pencilled in another play to mark the dawn of his octogenarian years, but “it wasn’t right”, he decided, and the looming anniversary suddenly found the Scarborough knight writing a work inspired by birthdays. Writing quickly, in his old custom, in six-hour dictation sessions that left his voice hoarse. In only two weeks it was ready.

And what an 80th birthday gift it is to Stephen Joseph Theatre audiences as summer turns to autumn. Ayckbourn is writing with twinkling mischief as much as the wisdom of age, to complement the dark wit and painfully truthful, awkward comedy.

What’s more, he is writing about that most uncomfortable of subjects to the English: sex. Getting it, not getting it, wanting it, not wanting it, and how it can play havoc with relationships.

Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present opens with the present-day, “round about now” birthday: retired bus driver Micky’s 80th birthday tea party: sitting grouchily, legs bandaged, head full of nonsense (or is it nonsense?!) about his son Adrian’s Lothario ways. SJT regular Russell Dixon is playing Micky, so you know you are in for a misanthropic treat.

Adrian (Jamie Baughan) will be bringing his latest girlfriend, Grace (Naomi Petersen, like Baughan, returning from last summer’s Joking Apart company).Adrian has just been divorced by his miserable wife, Faith. Lothario Adrian has reached the letter G in his conquests, notes his testy father.

Despite the protestations of long-suffering wife Meg (Jemma Churchill), Micky will insist on telling Grace, 45-year-old, church-going, never-had-it Grace, of Adrian’s “insatiable demands”.

We learn from Micky of his son’s Lothario landmarks, setting in motion a play that will subsequently travel back in time to those dates: 15 years ago at Meg’s 60th; 25 years ago on Adrian’s 30th; 38 years ago on his sister’s 20th.

Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch also travelled in reverse at York Theatre Royal only recently but was more of a puzzle, even a detective story, to unravel.

Ayckbourn’s play reveals layers of truth, to ever-increasing comic effect, that expose Micky’s misconceptions and proclivities, while showing Adrian, 30 years a bookkeeper, to be a gentle soul, an open book misread in each chapter. Someone who life happens to.

Baughan is a delightful fulcrum, travelling back to centre-parting and Star Wars duvet days of callow youth, from optimistic new beginnings post-divorce, loss of Faith as a rebound-job second husband and an awakening from innocence at his 30th.

Note the names of the women that pass through his life: Grace, Faith. Charity, a lippy call girl, and Hope, his sister’s friend with a schoolgirl crush. Bible-rooted names all: another witty touch from a bang-on-form Ayckbourn.

He directs brilliantly, whether orchestrating Micky and Meg’s fireworks or bringing out every nuance in Petersen’s four contrasting encounters with Baughan’s Adrian. What a performance she gives, or four performances, rather.

Cor-blimey call girl Charity’s vodka-sozzled game of Farm Snap with hapless Adrian, animal impersonations and all, is up there with Ayckbourn’s best scenes of all time. The English and sex, such a funny combination.

Charles Hutchinson