When I first set about learning my craft as a writer, the playwrights I most admired were Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. I was aware of Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn (who occupied similar positions on either side of the Atlantic) — funny, accessible and hugely popular.
But compared to the austere brilliance of Pinter or the pyrotechnic dazzle of Stoppard I consider Simon and Ayckbourn too broad, clownish, lowbrow. I didn't think there was much going on in their work... Their stuff was just too damned simple
I didn't realise how much craft was involved in achieving that appearance of simplicity. As with the smoothly swimming swan, there is a hell of a lot of activity going on unseen beneath the surface.
These days I tend to prefer Simon and Ayckbourn to Pinter and Stoppard. And The Norman Conquests may well be Alan Ayckbourn's masterpiece.
It is a series of three linked plays which can be (and have been) performed in any order. They deal with one weekend in the life of the philandering librarian Norman (His conquests are the women who succumb to his dubious charms.)
He has planned to take his wife's sister Annie away for a dirty weekend, but fate has other ideas...
I've never seen these plays performed. Just read them and heard an excellent radio version. And it really doesn't matter which one of the three you start with, or which one follows it, although each sequence has its own particular pleasure and shift of emphasis.
Ayckbourne is a truly great writer with unforgettably brilliant observations of character. When discussing the dull and lugubrious local GP, Annie says "I'm really very fond of Tom but he really is terribly heavy going. Like running up hill in roller skates."
(Image credits. For such an important sequence of plays, it's almost impossible to find good images online. The Penguin edition, with the John Ireland cartoon cover, is my own scan of my own copy and it is, in all modesty, the only decently sharp version to be found anywhere on the internet. The others are from Good Reads.)