The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

I will take the boy for £3 a week

The play is also about bullies, some of whom get their come-uppance.

Alan Ayckbourn has spent the whole of his working life in the theatre, starting at the age of 17 when he left school on a Friday and started working as an Assistant Stage Manager on the Monday. Since then he has been a sound technician, lighting technician, painter, prop maker, actor, director and above all inspirer and artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

At my school we had a teacher who was a complete theatre nut. He had worked with Donald Wolfitt and every year he would tour a Shakespeare play with his students. When I was 17 we went to Canada and America with Romeo and Juliet. It was a fantastic experience having all the joy of a professional tour with none of the responsibility. I decided then that I wouldn't go to university and my teacher pulled the one theatrical string he had. He rang Donald Wolfitt who happened to be taking The Strong are Lonely to Edinburgh and needed an ASM. I still have the letter Donald Wolfitt wrote: 'I will take the boy for £3 a week.' So there I was polishing furniture and playing a soldier and I was hooked for life.

By the time he was 19 Alan Ayckbourn was working for Stephen Joseph in a makeshift theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough. Stephen Joseph believed that writers belonged to the theatre company and, since he could not afford to employ many writers he encouraged members of the company to write.

My mother was a short story writer and as a result I had an image of writing in the family but I never identified writing as my primary talent. However, I accepted the challenge and by the second season at Scarborough I had written a play. After that I very rapidly got the boot from acting and became much more interested in directing. Now directing takes up much more of my time but it feeds the writer in me.

Alan Ayckbourn has three basic jobs: administering the Stephen Joseph Theatre, directing and writing. He has written over fifty plays and, in the past year alone, he has written an adaptation of The Forest by Ostrovski for the National Theatre, a full length play Comic Potential, The Boy Who Fell into a Book, a revue and Gizmo.

A lot of my writing happens around other things. If I get up in the morning with an idea, I'll write; if I have an hour or two at the end of dull day before a meeting I'll write. But when I'm working on a full-length play, which I do once a year, I need a month. I spend about three weeks circling round the problem and then write quickly based on thoughts and ideas accumulated over several months.

The post traumatic shock described in Gizmo is not a recognised syndrome but is something Alan Ayckbourn made up. He has written many sci-fi plays and the idea of positive movement replication synchronicity has been in his imagination for some time. In Gizmo he uses it to provide richly comic scenes that are entertaining and also very demanding for the actors.

I thought it best to set Gizmo on neutral ground that is neither the world of teenagers nor my world. I also wanted to write something which offered convincing dialogue and a degree of physicality that would be fun. I don't want to be pretentious about the play but I hope there is more to it than entertainment. I get excited about scientific discoveries. But they can be dangerous. We have these boxes of knowledge and we are like kids on Christmas Day. We unpack the box and then lose the instructions. Genetic engineering, for example, can be a boon or danger in the wrong hands with the wrong government at the wrong time. But in Gizmo I am more interested in the interconnected lives of people. The point I'm making is that, although we may not be connected by machines, we are all in some sense, responsible for each other.

Gizmo is a fast-moving thriller and love story combined. In the play there is a park full of muggers and perverts, Manny who sees himself as the real owner of the park, a hired killer and an undercover police woman who falls in love with Ben and who ends up physically paralysed and totally dependent on him. The play is also about bullies, some of whom get their come-uppance. Nerys is a sadistic physiotherapist. Rust and his gang intimidate Ted and kick him into unconsciousness yet they grovel in front of Manny. Lando, the ruthless killer, is himself killed. Manny is a bully and a small-time crook. He has some control over his area and likes to think he is a benevolent guardian whereas, in fact, he thinks nothing of organising a contract killing. By the end of the play a lot of his world is destroyed and he will probably end up being eaten by bigger fish.

I think the play is moral. After all the chief constable says, 'We have struck a strong blow against gangs that terrorise and presume to own our cities.' It's a small battle, only just the beginning. The real triumph is the love story. I've written it in a style that is fast-moving and makes demands on the whole company, not just the actors but the sound and lighting technicians as well. They'll have to work on it and they will also have to reflect on the issues. There's enough of the preacher in me to want to have an effect on young people.

The final scene of Gizmo sees the story come full circle. Cevril is now in the wheelchair and Ben, wearing the gizmo, brings her to her feet. The stage directions bring the play to a satisfying conclusion.

They turn back to face each other, Cevril looking slightly startled. Ben kisses her. Cevril, whether she likes it or not (and one rather gathers she does) responds.