Favourite Things: Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking is – as all fans of Alan Ayckbourn fans know – his first big play. It’s his first significant success in the West End and helped make Alan a household name during the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s also the play – from an Archivist’s perspective – where things start to get interesting. With an acknowledged success comes more reason to preserve contemporary items relevant to the play, which eventually become part of the Ayckbourn Archive. There are more original cuttings of reviews, programmes, newspaper articles and other ephemera relating to the earliest productions of the play than anything he previously wrote. There is a sense that playwriting is now Alan’s significant career strand – it’s worth remembering that Alan only retired as a professional actor the year before he wrote Relatively Speaking.

Alan Ayckbourn circa 1965, the year he wrote Relatively Speaking (© To be confirmed)

Of course, Relatively Speaking was not only exceptionally popular in the West End in 1967 but continues to be popular today and is consistently revived by both professionals and amateurs, so there is a wealth of archival material from its first production at the Library Theatre in 1965 to the present day held in Archive – Salisbury Playhouse recently announced it will be reviving the play in-the-round from 4 – 28 September 2019 and, no doubt, programmes and press cuttings from this production will soon enter the Ayckbourn Archive for posterity.

As a result, it starts becoming more difficult to name my favourite things – as Alan becomes more famous and successful, so there are more items in the Archive to look at and choose from! So I’m limiting myself to three items and the story of one which unfortunately can’t be shown here.

My first item is actually rather famous in itself. Relatively Speaking began its life in 1965 at the Library Theatre as Meet My Father. Two years later, it moved to the West End opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 29 March 1967. Early in its run, it was seen by a rather more established playwright at the time, Noël Coward, who – impressed by what he had seen – sent a telegram of congratulations to its author as Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, notes in Grinning At The Edge.

Noël Coward’s telegram to Alan Ayckbourn held by the University of York (© Haydonning Ltd)

“A telegram arrived at the BBC in Leeds which Alan assumed to be a practical joke, especially when it turned out there was 14 shillings (70p) to pay for the delivery. It read: DEAR ALAN AYCKBOURN. ALL MY CONGRATULATIONS ON A BEUATIFULLY CONSTRUCTED AND VERY FUNNY PLAY. I ENJOYED EVERY MOMENT OF IT = NOEL COWARD.”

Alan has expanded on this story in the past suggesting he actually threw it into the bin – not believing it was authentic – before receiving a telephone call from the actor Richard Briers, appearing in the play, who had spoken to Coward after seeing the show – at which Alan promptly retrieved the crumpled telegram! The telegram is now safely held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York and is, undoubtedly, one of the most significant holdings in the collection.

The cover of the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Relatively Speaking with Leeds Art Theatre.

My second favourite item is not an obvious choice, as it’s a programme for an amateur production of Relatively Speaking; given there have been thousands of performance of Relatively Speaking since 1965, programmes are not that unusual! However, this one is rather special.

Although Alan Ayckbourn is well-known for directing his own work, he did not direct the world premiere of Relatively Speaking at the Library Theatre nor the West End premiere – directed by Stephen Joseph and Nigel Patrick respectively. Alan did not, in fact, direct Relatively Speaking professionally until 1977 when it was revived at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough. But his first stab at directing what is arguably his most famous work was with an amateur company.

The interior of the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Relatively Speaking with Leeds Arts Theatre

Between 1965 and 1970, Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC based in Leeds. During that period he became patron of Leeds Art Theatre (for whom he directed Mr Whatnot as noted in a previous blog). In 1970, he directed Relatively Speaking for the first time with Leeds Art Theatre at Leeds Civic Theatre. It’s a rather nice oddity to think of a nationally famous playwright at that point (and about to become even more famous with the West End premiere of How The Other Half Loves later that year) directing a local amateur company in one of his most famous plays.

Moving slightly back in time and Relatively Speaking‘s place not only as Alan’s first major West End success, but also the first of his plays to be seen on television. On 21 July 1967, the BBC broadcast a 50 minute excerpt from the West End production of Relatively Speaking marking the first time any of Alan’s work had been seen in a substantive form on television. Sadly this does not survive in archive nor does a full length adaptation of the play produced for the BBC’s Play of the Month in 1969 starring Donald Sinden and Celia Johnson and directed by Herbert Wise (who would go on to direct The Norman Conquests for ITV in 1977).

John Stride (Greg), Donald Sinden (Philip), Celia Johnson (Sheila) & Judy Cornwell (Ginny) in the 1969 BBC TV adaptation of Relatively Speaking (© BBC)

Although the television adaptation does not survive, seven mint-condition publicity stills from the broadcast were recently rediscovered within the Ayckbourn Archive and offer a fascinating insight into the production. Whilst they will never replace the opportunity of seeing how Relatively Speaking was adapted, they do offer a chance to get a feel for the actors and the production values (and issues such as the 15 year age discrepancy between Donald Sinden’s Philip and Celia Johnson’s Sheila leading to, according to Alan, a conscious decision by Herbert Wise to film most of the production in long-shot). As an archivist I try to be optimistic and hope nothing is completely lost; these photos are a good example of that, turning up 50 years after the broadcast and preserving some of its history in a small way.

And so to my final favourite – and unseen – item from the archive. When Alan Ayckbourn first wrote Relatively Speaking (or Meet My Father as it was), he delivered it to the Library Theatre’s Artistic Director and the plays’ director, Stephen Joseph, who declared it too long and promptly decided to cut the play, as Alan Ayckbourn records.

“[Stephen Joseph had cut] rather a lot of important bits, because he didn’t seem to mind where it was cut as long as it was cut. When he did this you would point that there were some important bits of information missing, but he’d just say: ‘Don’t worry, people. They’ll follow it.’ and they generally did. It was very good, and Peter Bridge came up with the director Nigel Patrick and they declared it was great.”

Alan has noted that Stephen would draw thick marker lines through swathes of dialogue in the original manuscript; all of which sounded apocryphal and more of a good story than hard fact. And then, in 2007, Doctor Paul Elsam discovered an original manuscript of Meet My Father in which, literally, swathes of pages have thick marker pen lines through the dialogue. It’s a fascinating document to see.

This then formed the basis of a project I undertook to reconstruct the play as originally performed in 1965 leading to a manuscript which is approximately a third shorter than the play we know today. Although only created for research purposes – and it will never be allowed to be performed – it is a personal project of which I’m very fond.

Of course, what Alan doesn’t mention about Peter Bridge and Nigel Patrick is that when they asked for the play to read, Alan gave them the uncut original manuscript rather than Stephen Joseph’s edited script. They didn’t seem to notice and it all worked out rather well in the end for everyone concerned.


Past, Present & Future

Last Thursday I had the privilege of hosting the first public performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s fourth play Standing Room Only since 1966.

The hugely memorable evening saw Dick & Lottie theatre company give a rehearsed reading of the play at The Square Chapel, Halifax – and complements to everyone at The Square Chapel for helping to make the event so special. The professional company – Leslie Davidoff, Leah Gray-Scaife, Maria Sykes, Hannah Sims, Darren Jeffries & Joe Geddes – all did a great job under the eye of the company’s director John Cotgrave. A call out to the specially composed music of Paul Chamberlain and Richard McArtney’s lovely throwback-futuristic costumes.

It was a unique and exciting opportunity to offer a chance to talk about and experience a play that had never been expected to be performed again – and very much a treat for all the Ayckbourn aficionados who attended. One of the questions I was asked was, after a successful event like this, what happens to the play next? In this day and age, there is perhaps the expectation that a successful evening will lead to further events or an extended life for the play.

So let’s tie that into the broader context of what the position is regarding Alan Ayckbourn’s early withdrawn plays and what their status is. To focus briefly on Standing Room Only, it’s had its brief moment in the sun and will not be seen again – at least not in any foreseeable future. The script has now been returned to Archive and it will once again be marked ‘not for production’. There will be no repeat performance nor new events even with the success of the event at The Square Chapel; it was always designed to be what it was – a unique celebration of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing.

Back to the broader picture and Standing Room Only is one of six of Alan’s eight earliest plays which have been withdrawn. The other plays are The Square Cat (1959), Love After All (1959), Dad’s Tale (1960), Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and The Sparrow (1967). What does withdrawn actually mean? Essentially, it means the playwright has decided they are not available for any kind of production – professional, amateur or rehearsed reading – nor will they be published or reproduced. They are held in archive and can only be accessed through the archives where they are held.

So the first question is, why has Alan Ayckbourn withdrawn six of his first ten plays? It’s actually rather simple, as the playwright has noted he was a young writer learning his craft and, as a result, wouldn’t want his early efforts to be back in the public eye nor does he believe anyone would really want to see the majority of them! There’s no deep reason, just the understandable position that he doesn’t believe his early works are terribly good and that there are a lot better plays to perform or look at.

So what happens / has happened to the early plays? For many years, there was the apocraphyl story that Alan was trying to destroy all copies of his early work. He wasn’t really, but it was more than enough to put people off searching for them – which I suspect was one of the reasons Alan said he was trying to destroy them. When I became Archivist in 2005, it was believed his second play, Love After All, was completely lost and there were doubts that his fifth play, Christmas V Mastermind, still existed. As it turns out, all Alan Ayckbourn’s plays exist in at least one original manuscript and all his withdrawn plays were discovered to be held in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library; this being due to all plays prior to 1968 having to be submitted and approved for performance.

So the early plays have been withdrawn from circulation and archived; which means they are available to be researched but not to be published or performed. The University of York also has a complete collection of early plays in The Ayckbourn Archive (either original manuscripts or copies) and various other collections such as The John Rylands Library, Manchester, and the University of Staffordshire hold copies of individual early plays such as The Square Cat.

What does that mean regarding access? Theoretically anyone can go to the University of York or the British Library and read any of the withdrawn plays in situ. They are there for research purposes, which – arguably – is the only wider interest these plays should attract by allowing researchers studying or writing about Alan’s plays to assess the early works and their place in his progress as a writer. They can’t be removed from these collections though nor can they be copied without the permission of the playwright (which isn’t going to be given). But if you’re interested enough, you can contact the archives in York or London and arrange to read these plays. But that is the closest they will get to a wider public view.

The final question, I suppose, is could the plays ever be released for production or be published? That’s very doubtful and would go against everything the playwright has said and intends. It seems very doubtful the playwright would agree to allow anything but the briefest public glimpses of the plays in the years to come. Odd extracts may be performed occasionally – on 28 September, Alan will be presenting the evening 8o Years Young at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and there will be an extract from Dad’s Tale performed during that evening. But anything more substantial than that is unlikely. The permission for Dick & Lottie to perform Standing Room Only was a one-off made possible because of the collaboration between his Archivist and a company celebrating its fifteenth anniversary and entirely dedicated to Alan’s work. But these are exceptions and events approved by and close to the playwright himself. Any other attempts at production seem highly unlikely now or in the foreseeable future.

And what is the foreseeable future? Well, that’s where copyright comes into force. Anyone pinning their hopes on that is either very young or expecting some massive leaps in medical science and longevity (such as Alan predicts in his play Surprises). Currently, literary works in the UK (and the USA) are protected for 70 years until after the author’s death. As Alan Ayckbourn is still very much alive and writing, it’s thus not something that is going to have to be dealt with for quite a long time – and certainly something I’m not going to be dealing with during my lifetime!

Were Alan a less prolific writer, there might be arguments that everything should be made available – no matter the quality or even the writer’s wishes. However, given that he’s written 86 plays and counting, there’s a very strong argument that there’s still more than enough to keep ardent researchers and fans of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays busy for quite a while. I certainly think so – and I spend every day working on and researching Alan’s plays and there’s more than enough research to last me more years than I can imagine!

Favourite Things: Mr Whatnot

Our regular delve into some of my things in The Alan Ayckbourn Archive skips a play this week to arrive at Mr Whatnot.

Premiered at the Victoria Theatre in 1963, Mr Whatnot is a notable play for serval significant reasons. It marked the first time Alan Ayckbourn had directed the world premiere off one of his plays and it was the first of his plays to transfer to the West End – of which more later.

My favourite item in the Ayckbourn Archive though is derived not from the world or the West End premiere of Mr Whatnot, but rather an amateur production of rather unusual providence.

In 1965, following some traumatic reviews of the West End premiere of Mr Whatnot, Alan took a job at the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer based in Leeds for five years. Initially, he had no thought of writing for the theatre again, but his mentor Stephen Joseph fortunately soon changed his mind about that.

Whilst in Leeds, Alan discovered an aspiring actor called Robert Peck who he employed in a number of roles for the radio and, later, for two years at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. The same Robert Peck who would become rather more famous as Bob Peck, star of the classic BBC thriller Edge of Darkness, a Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre veteran and – amongst much television and several films – the game hunter in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

Alan Ayckbourn with Bob Peck as Mr Whatnot in rehearsals for an amateur performance of Mr Whatnot. ©Haydonning Ltd.

At the time, Bob was a member of the amateur Leeds Art Theatre of which Alan was the patron and, in 1968, asked Alan if he would do the company a favour and help with the new production as the planned one had fallen through. Alan agreed to both provide a play and direct it, choosing Mr Whatnot. He cast Bob Peck in the titular role as the mute piano tuner, Mint. In the Ayckbourn Archive, there are several photographs from rehearsals from this production including this favourite with a pensive Alan looking on at Bob Peck.

It’s a favourite photo of mine providing as it does a very rare look at Alan involved in an amateur drama company as well as two men who had huge respect for each other and their respective work. Alan would reunite with Bob in 1985 when he took the lead role of Guy in Alan’s production of A Chorus of Disapproval for the National Theatre.

Ronnie Barker (centre) as Lord Slingsby Craddock in the West End premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot (photo held in The Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York)

Whilst we’re looking at Mr Whatnot, it’s always been a source of fascination that the West End premiere starred the British comedian Ronnie Barker as Lord Slingsby-Craddock; at this point Barker was beginning to make a name for himself but had not yet risen to huge fame. Although the West End production was a disaster (the shortest run of any Ayckbourn play in the West End – including the more famous musical Jeeves), Barker and Alan hit it off and would work together again – albeit rather surreptitiously.

Barker so enjoyed playing the character of Slingsby-Craddock that he essentially asked Alan to write him into his 1969 TV series Hark At Barker. Alan, under contract for the BBC, was contractually not allowed to write for the comedy show as it was on ITV However,using the pseudonym of Peter Caulfield, he wrote for both series of Hark At Barker penning the links between sketches which featured Lord Rustless; whom Barker had created several years earlier inspired by his work in Mr Whatnot.

Script page from Hark At Barker (©London Weekend Television)

Alan’s significant contribution can be seen in the frontispiece to the script for the first episode of series one of the show which notes ‘Hark At Barker by Peter Caulfield and various authors’; most of the various authors were pseudonyms for Ronnie Barker apparently! Barker himself talks about the Alan’s connection and contribution to the character of Rustless in his authorised biography.

“Absolutely. He [Slingsby-Craddock] was Lord Rustless mark one, definitely…. When I did Hark at Barker – that was him, albeit with sketches. Alan Ayckbourn wrote all the links for that show but I don’t think he admits it. He called himself Peter Caulfield, but I don’t know whether he would like people to know that was him or not. He liked the character in Mr Whatnot, so he knew what the character was about. Rustless was really giving a lecture to the audience on a subject, such as ‘communication’ or ‘servants’ or something and he would illustrate it with sketches, which enabled me to pay lots of different parts.”

Ronnie Barker as himself and Lord Rustless in the first episode of Hark At Barker (©London Weekend Television)

It’s a fascinating insight into a rarely known aspect of Alan’s career not least because it marks Alan’s only venture into television. Alan has been committed to theatre throughout his life and, unlike most of his contemporaries, has never been persuaded to move into television or film; even for the filmed adaptations of his plays, he has minimal involvement at best. Aside from a short screenplay for a play for television – Service Not Included – Alan’s only little known foray into screenwriting was Hark At Barker.

Despite its West End battering, Mr Whatnot would become a success for Alan and was revived successfully by the author in Scarborough in 1976 with many well-received productions – both professional and amateur – over the subsequent years. As it stands, it is the earliest of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays which has been published and which is available for performance.

The SJT’s Earliest Success

One of the roles of an Archivist is to shed light on what has been forgotten or lost over time. When a theatre, such as the Stephen Joseph Theatre, has been running for more than six decades, it’s not unusual that some aspects of its history have been forgotten.

Occasionally, that includes significant contributions such is the case with the playwright David Campton; arguably the theatre’s earliest success. Whilst the late writer is still known today, his relationship with the Stephen Joseph Theatre and his significant role in its early development has all but been forgotten – and is certainly unmarked within the theatre itself.

When we talk about the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its most notable protégé, we tend to think about Alan Ayckbourn. A playwright whose career has spanned more than six decades, has won numerous awards, been produced around the world and is generally recognised as one of the most significant English playwrights of the late 20th century. He is also the man most visibly associated with continuing Stephen Joseph‘s legacy and championing the causes – new writing and theatre-in-the-round – upon which he founded the Scarborough company on.

David Campton (sitting) in a publicity shot for his work Four Minute Warning (©Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Yet, arguably, there is another Stephen Joseph protégé who also achieved considerable success during his life and also played a significant role in keeping the – then – Library Theatre – alive. David Campton was the company’s first resident playwright who Stephen believed had the greatest chance of becoming the break-out talent from the Library Theatre. Indeed David received early notices from several noted critics favourably comparing him to Harold Pinter.

As it was, Alan Ayckbourn became the breakout star of the Library Theatre in 1967 when his play Relatively Speaking opened in the West End, several months prior to Stephen Joseph’s death. Yet although he never matched Alan’s rare success, David did become a notable and respected playwright in his own respect, constantly writing throughout his life, constantly produced and still performed to this day.

But his relationship with Stephen Joseph, Alan Ayckbourn and the Library Theatre has all but been lost to time. This is that story.

When he founded the Library Theatre in 1955, one of Stephen Joseph’s stated intentions was to encourage new plays by new playwrights. It is something which is ingrained in the company and which continues to this day.

The inaugural season featured new plays by four writers of which three were women – astonishing for any British theatre in 1955. The fourth writer was David Campton, who would become the company’s first resident writer and also the company’s theatre manager during its most difficult years.

David first came to Stephen’s attention during a playwriting course during the early 1950s. Keen to encourage a promising new writer, Stephen continued to work with David and in 1955 invited him to write a play for the new Library Theatre in Scarborough. This play, Dragons Are Dangerous, began a pattern in which David had at least one play produced every year at the Library Theatre until Stephen’s death in 1965; making him the venue’s most prolific writer during this period. He also had more plays directed by Stephen than anyone else.

Their strong relationship had a profound impact on David’s writing; Stephen encouraged David’s early ‘Comedy of Menace’ plays, which led to favourable comparisons with Harold Pinter. Stephen firmly believed David had the potential to be a success and went to great lengths to promote the writer, even in London. While he did not achieve the recognition Stephen felt he deserved, his plays were well-received by many influential critics including John Russell Taylor, who featured David in his seminal book on British theatre during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Anger And After. In an article in The Times in 1961, he argued the playwright’s lack of recognition was due entirely to geography: “Clearly it is Mr Campton’s misfortune that he lives in the North, and has been produced primarily by a northern company, since up to now it has prevented him from receiving the attention he should have.”

David Campton in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat (©Scarborough Theatre Trust)

David, like so many others at the Library Theatre, was not just a writer. He was the venue’s general manager between 1959 and 1963 and acted in 23 plays including the world premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s first two plays, The Square Cat and Love After All. Indeed between 1959 and 1961, the pair were responsible for writing 14 of the 31 productions staged.

The pair had a good relationship and Alan has fond memories of the increasingly terrible roles they wrote for each other which culminated in Alan playing “a homicidal, 108 year old female cook / nanny” in David’s Little Brother, Little Sister. His role as a one-eyed, one armed, one-legged bar-tender in Solider From The Wars Returning must have a come a close second though!

David (right) with Harold Pinter during rehearsals for Pinter’s directorial debut with his now classic play The Birthday Party (©Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Possibly David’s most memorable acting moment came in early 1960 when he appeared, alongside Alan Ayckbourn, in Harold Pinter’s professional directorial debut in the second production of The Birthday Party. Sadly, David’s experiences of playing Petey under the author’s eye are not know, although Alan has spoken of his own extraordinary experiences playing Stanley. Certainly David and Alan can claim to be part of the production which Pinter later claimed restored his faith both in the play itself following its West End mauling in 1958 and his own writing abilities. As for why Pinter ended up directing The Birthday Party with the Scarborough in-the-round company, that is a story for another day.

Like Alan, Stephen also encouraged David to try his hand at directing, initially directing his own play Usher in 1962, followed by Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels in 1963. Indeed, like many of the Scarborough company at the time, David had diverse talents being writer, actor, director and manager – much as Alan was writer, director, actor, stage manager and lighting / sound technician for the company between 1957 and 1962.

Alan Ayckbourn & Dona Martyn remove their paper bags to chat with director Stephen Joseph during rehearsals for David Campton’s Then… (©Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Perhaps influenced by Stephen Joseph’s own interests, much of David’s early work would be considered far edgier than Alan Ayckbourn’s – which was unashamedly populist and commissioned and written to bring in the audiences. But in David’s work – particularly in his shorter plays collected under titles such as A View From The Brink and Four Minute Warning – we have darkly funny pieces which encapsulate theatre of menace, concerns about the nuclear age, bureaucracy and the direction the world was going. Several of them venture into absurdist territory – Alan Ayckbourn still remembers the difficulty of acting under a paper bag for David’s short play Then….

David was unswervingly loyal to Stephen Joseph and, after Stephen left to found the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, in 1962, David agreed to run the Scarborough company in his absence. These were difficult years for the Scarborough company as subsidies from the Arts Council dried up and the company fought with both the Libraries Committee and the Town Council for support and funding. With Stephen away from Scarborough much of the time, David and theatre manager Ken Boden were caught at the sharp end of trying to run the theatre. Indeed when, frustrated by the perceived bureaucracy of the town and lack of council support, Stephen Joseph decided to close the Library Theatre in 1965, it was he and David whose names are on the document announcing the closure of the theatre.

The theatre itself was saved, largely thanks to the work of Ken Boden – another key figure in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre whose memory is marked by the Boden Room at the SJT today – and re-opened as a professional venue in 1967. By this point, Stephen was terminally ill and would die in October of that year. David had also decided to step away from Scarborough, although he would remain a board member of Scarborough Theatre Trust in the years to come.

The last play Stephen Joseph directed in Scarborough before his death was David’s Cock & Bull Story in 1965. Following his death, David was vocal in defending Stephen’s artistic legacy and was responsible for facilitating the acquisition of Stephen’s papers by the University of Manchester.

Although David would remain interested in and close to the Library Theatre, his playwriting days there had – essentially – ended with Stephen. He would have only one more play produced in Scarborough with Alan Ayckbourn directing the gothic thriller Carmilla in 1972.

While it may be almost 50 years since one of his plays was last performed at the SJT, David found considerable success outside Scarborough. He wrote more than 100 one act plays and 20 full-length plays; of which more than 20 are currently published by Samuel French with considerably more available to produce. His one act plays have long been a staple of amateur groups and his continued popularity can be measured by the fact that in 2010, he was the most performed playwright in the All England Theatre Festival.

Although David is not publicly recognised in the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the town where he first found professional success, many original manuscripts of his earliest plays are held in archive in The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre alongside several of his early published works, which he donated to the theatre. A mark of how much he thought of Scarborough can be found for anyone walking the famed Marine Drive. There, half-way round on one of the prime viewing spots of the wild North Sea and beneath the cliffs on which the castle stands, there is a seat dedicated to David by his family commemorating his love for the town.

David died in 2006 at the age of 82, shortly after receiving the Doctor Of Letters at the University of Leicester, having undoubtedly made a significant and lasting mark on British drama. His plays continue to be performed and be popular and John Russell Taylor’s description of his writing seems as relevant today as it did in 1961.

“His voice is individual, and deserves to be heard.”

Favourite Things: Standing Room Only

Continuing our look at some of my favourite things held in the Ayckbourn Archive regarding his plays, we skip forward a year to 1961 and Alan’s fourth play, Standing Room Only.

This is a key early play for Alan Ayckbourn. I’d argue strongly it’s the first play where Alan’s own voice as a playwright begins to be heard, it’s also the first of his plays to be optioned for the West End and television (although neither occurred) and it is also the earliest of his plays which is credited to Alan Ayckbourn rather than his pseudonym Roland Allen (although it was initially credited to Allen, subsequent revivals credited it to Ayckbourn).

My favourite item related to this play is the rather notorious review The Stage newspaper gave the play in July 1961, which is reprinted below:

Is There A Manager To Drive This Bus To Shaftesbury Avenue?

A scene from the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Standing Room Only at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1960 © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Stephen Joseph‘s company at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, have established a reputation for zany off-beat comedies, plays which say, “Isn’t this absurd? Isn’t it ridiculous, funny and impossible?” and then, suddenly “Isn’t this true?”

In the past the chief writer in this vein has been David Campton. Now, in Standing Room Only, Roland Allen takes his turn. We remember him as a writer of farces, and his new play is very funny, but it is also totally logical, and a cautionary tale for tomorrow.

Let us suppose that the population continues to increase by compound interest – as it is doing – and that more and more people buy cars – as they are doing – and that nothing is done about it until too late – as almost nothing is being done – and the inevitable end will be ‘Saturation Saturday’, when London’s traffic comes to a great and final halt in the rush-hour.

Mr. Allen has taken this inevitability, and considered its consequences, taking a traditional cockney bus-driver and his family, and setting his play on their bus, stuck in Shaftesbury Avenue since before the two daughters were born.

Alan Ayckbourn (left) & Stanley Page (centre) in Standing Room Only © Scarborough Theatre Trust

A desperate government is raising skyscrapers ever higher, and has answered its population problem by making childbirth illegal. And here on the bus, the impossible accident has happened and the law-abiding daughter and the son-in-law – who is a pillar of the civil service – are having an illegal baby.

With completely logical absurdity this situation is followed through in a comedy which the cast clearly enjoys at as high a pitch as the audience. The play has still a slight untidiness in parts, but it is the untidiness of exuberance, and does nothing to spoil the evening.

Stanley Page as the cockney driver sighing for the corned beef of yesteryear; David Jarrett as the mysterious outsider; and Alan Ayckbourn as the meticulous, humourless public servant, come together to make a brilliant trio of Expectant Fatherdom.

They are well matched by Rosamund Dickson and Hazel Burt as the two girls, the first a simple believer in what “they” say, and the other an unsentimental individualist.

The play’s gaiety is enhanced by the inspiredly [sic] futuristic costumes by Christine Roland, and by the wildly impressionistic bus on which Stephen Joseph has set it.

Mr. Allen has imagined his bus in Shaftesbury Avenue: is there no management to drive it there?”

© The Stage Media Company Ltd – 20 July 1961

Hazel Burt, Rosamund Dickson & David Jarrett in Standing Room Only © Scarborough Theatre Trust

So what makes this review so special? After all, it’s not the first time The Stage reviewed Alan’s plays – that privilege belongs to his first play The Square Cat. What’s fascinating is this review brought Alan to the attention of the West End producer Peter Bridge, which brought him to the attention of the famed literary agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay, both of which then led to his first major West End success, Relatively Speaking, in 1967. But above and beyond that, all this happened because of what is – essentially – a fake review!

To explain, the review was written by Joan MacAlpine. Not a famed or noted theatre critic for The Stage. Or any other publication. Rather a company manager and occasional playwright. More specifically, a company manager for Stephen Joseph’s Library Theatre company. In fact, the company manager for Standing Room Only….

At the time, The Stage had an open review policy – although it presumably discouraged people involved in the actual productions writing the reviews. Joan managed to sneak this one by The Stage and wrote, to be fair, a review with a killer and very attractive punch-line: ‘Mr Allen has imagined his bus in Shaftesbury Avenue: is there no management to drive it there?’ Very clever and it worked. As a result of reading the review, Peter Bridge saw the play and optioned it for the West End, arguably offering a fast-track for his plays which followed.

From this play we can also trace back Alan’s dislike for the West End. Having optioned the play, Bridge kept asking Alan for rewrites to accommodate whatever the tastes of whichever star he thought might show an interest in the play: Carry On star Sid James expressed an interest but thought it needed far more ‘rudes’ (swear words). With each star, Alan altered the script either superficially (changing the description of a character to match that of the interested party) or fairly significantly – there’s a possibility an entirely new character, Ellie, was written purely to cater for an interest by Hattie Jacques.

As a result of this Alan grew quite angry with the thought of needlessly rewriting plays: “I kept rewriting till I was heartily sick of the thing. Needless to say it finished up a total mess. I’ve hated re-writing ever since.” It also made him very wary of the star-system which was already prevalent in the West End and only grew over the decades. Alan has always disliked the way stars are dropped into West End productions of his work and unbalance what are always intended as ensemble pieces.

All of this can be traced back to a fairly innocuous review in The Stage that probably should never have been printed in the first place!

If you’re interested in Standing Room Only, then there is a unique opportunity to actually see it performed live. On Thursday 4 July at The Square Chapel theatre, Halifax, Dick & Lottie Theatre Company is presenting a rehearsed reading of Standing Room Only preceded by an introduction to the play by myself. Alan Ayckbourn has given permission for this one-off production as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. It will be the first time the play has been performed in its entirety since 1966 and will then go back into archive following the performance on 4 July. Given the playwright has no intention of letting it be produced again or be published, this is a unique opportunity for fans of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing. Further details can be found here.

The Curious Case of the Play That Never Was

This summer Alan Ayckbourn will revive his classic play Season’s Greetings at his home venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Season’s Greetings has an unusual history though as it wasn’t actually the play Alan set out to write in 1980. On 27 July 1980, the Evening Standard announced Alan’s latest play would be called Sight Unseen. No clue as to its content was given although the playwright noted ‘I’ve a glimmer at the moment but if I told you the plot it would sound ludicrous.’

An extract from Alan Ayckbourn’s correspondence to Christopher Morahan © Haydonning Ltd.

At this point, he wrote to the director Christopher Morahan at the National Theatre noting: ‘I’m about to write play 25 and am pacing nervously. It’s called, somewhat fittingly, Sight Unseen. Assuming I finish that, I shall have it rehearsed and into repertoire by the end of September and will actually have a few days to spare when I shall make haste Nationalwards.’

Report from The Stage on 4 September 1980 regarding Sight Unseen © The Stage Media Company Ltd

By mid August, various newspapers reported that Alan had ‘locked himself’ away to write his latest piece Sight Unseen. This being literally the case. Alan throughout his career is renowned for essentially going into seclusion when writing his plays, emerging from his office only to forage for food and leaving strict instructions not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Fortunately, he’s a little more relaxed about it all now!

The subject of Sight Unseen was still a secret though with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round’s press officer Stephen Wood saying: ‘No one has a clue what the play is about, and we shall not until Alan gives us the script.’

And no-one would – officially – ever find out what the play was about. Rehearsals for Sight Unseen were scheduled to begin on 4 September 1980. On, approximately, 1 September, Alan contacted the theatre to – rather worryingly – note that he was going to write an entirely different play called Season’s Greetings. Rehearsals were pushed back a day (as was the opening night) as Alan stormed through the script writing an entirely different play.

Alan himself has briefly spoken of what happened, but has never gone into depth about the proposed play; in a recent interview regarding Season’s Greetings he professed he had forgotten all about Sight Unseen. However, a contemporary interview does shed some light on the play: ‘It’s wrong to say I was actually into the dialogue stage. I was into the construction stage: I was putting up the fences. I then did a volte face and left myself with just two things from the thriller. One was that I set it in a hallway which I quite liked.’

Of course, cynically, one could also say that given the play was a week away from going into rehearsals, it was probably fairly opportune to utilise a hallway set which was presumably already being built!

Extract from Alan Ayckbourn’s notes for Sight Unseen © Haydonning Ltd.

Other than the confirmation the play was a thriller, nothing else was known about the play until 2010. Whilst working in the Ayckbourn Archive, I came across two pieces of foolscap paper with random handwritten notes on them which – at first glance – appeared to refer to Season’s Greetings. Until a closer look revealed that Neville is not killed by a random murderer in Season’s Greetings! Given the names of the characters are largely identical to those used in Season’s Greetings, the notes are indicative of a thriller / whodunit plot and the random murderer idea would be revived two years later, these were obviously Alan’s notes for Sight Unseen.

These two sheets of paper offered a huge insight into what Alan was planning and how certain elements were recycled for Season’s Greetings (such as the set and the character names) and for his 1983 thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us (a thriller where the murderer is randomly determined each performance).

Extract from Alan Ayckbourn’s notes for Sight Unseen © Haydonning Ltd.

As these extracts from the notes demonstrate, the play was about the murder of Neville Bunker and who was responsible for it. Several characters share similar names and relationships to those in Season’s Greetings, although Belinda is variously referred to as Belinda, Melinda and Angela. The notes also clearly indicate there’s a random murderer and what each person’s motives are – although no hint is given as to how the random choice would be made. As can be seen from the notes, these reasons are:

  • Melinda kills Nev to free her
  • Derek kills Nev to free her [presumably Melinda / Belinda]
  • Bernard kills Nev to avoid family break-up
  • Veronica kills Nev to avoid family break up

Obviously Alan had second thoughts about this play which largely can be traced back to the same problems which would dog him while writing It Could Be Any One Of Us in that for a random murder thriller to work, everyone has to have legitimate reasons to murder the same person, which essentially means you have a house full of homicidal maniacs. Alan decided that, as a result, ‘it was rather a boring thing to write.’ His solution to this problem when he wrote It Could Be Any One of Us was not to have an actual murder, but that posed its own problems and he later rewrote the play to incorporate a death.

As it is, Sight Unseen was forgotten with the success of Season’s Greetings. But behind one of Alan’s most popular plays lays one of his most obscure unwritten works and the play that never was.

Favourite Things: Love After All

Continuing our look into some of this Archivist’s favourite items in the Ayckbourn Archive with Alan Ayckbourn’s second play Love After All (1959).

The Ayckbourn Archive actually holds very little regarding Love After All and that’s perhaps not a surprise. 1959 marked Alan’s first year as a professional playwright, it would be surprising if he had the foresight to have started saving material for posterity so early in his fledgling career. Let’s not forget, Alan at the time considered himself first and foremost an actor and that appeared to be the trajectory upon which he was heading. The playwriting was a nice sideline that kept him in LPs and home comforts for his family!

The Ayckbourn Archive holds no more than two dozen contemporary articles and reviews for the only two productions of the play (it was produced separately by Studio Theatre Ltd in Scarborough in both 1959 and 1960), a couple of programmes, a selection of publicity photographs and a scan of the original manuscript.

The cover of the sole surviving manuscript of Love After All held in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library (© Haydonning Ltd)

The latter is my favourite item by far and away for Love After All and one of my all-time favourite items in the entire Archive. Why, you might well ask? It’s not as though it’s even the original item. Well, let’s head back in time.

Love After All was written in a very brief window during the autumn of 1959 as a result of the success of Alan’s first play, The Square Cat. Having done stellar business, Stephen Joseph – the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough – asked his protege to knock out a second play for the forthcoming winter season. Alan agreed and, swiping inspiration from the plot of The Barber of Seville, wrote Love After All.

The Edwardian-set farce was another success and it was decided it would be revived for the following summer season. However, the original director Clifford Williams – who would go on to a long and successful international directing career and was hugely influential at the Royal Shakespeare Company – was unavailable during the summer of 1960 and a replacement, Julian Herington, was appointed. He disliked aspects of the original play and asked Alan to rewrite it for a contemporary setting with some notable changes. Alan didn’t like the new version, Stephen Joseph didn’t like the fact that Herington’s two productions consumed the summer season’s entire production budget and Herington never worked for Studio Theatre Ltd again. The play was also never performed again.

A page from Love After All highlighting one of the more interesting scenes (© Haydonning Ltd)

By the time Alan started achieving major success – starting with Relatively Speaking in 1967 and consistently throughout the 1970s from Absurd Person Singular forward – there was an obvious interest in this playwright, where he had come from and what he had written previously. Alan was of a view that his early writing was just that, early writing showing nothing but a young man learning his craft. He had no desire for the early works to be dug out and performed, so he began batting the question away when asked about these plays noting he had either destroyed them all or was attempting to destroy them all.

Now it’s hard to know whether this was true – not many copies of the plays were produced in the first place and there’s natural wastage and loss. Original copies of The Square Cat (1959) are held in four Archive collections, The Sparrow (1967) in just one. It seems likely Alan did his best to ‘lose’ what manuscripts he came across. And with Love After All, he was very successful. When I took on the role of Archivist in 2005, it was accepted that Love After All – in both its versions – had been completely lost. It’s obvious in Paul Allen’s Ayckbourn biography, Grinning At The Edge, that he has not found the play nor is there any indication of anyone else accessing it.

The sole surviving Love After All page held in the Ayckbourn Archive complete with Steven Ayckbourn’s drawing (© Haydonning Ltd)

My early exploration of the Ayckbourn Archive turned up just a single sheet of the Love After All manuscript held in Archive – preserved not because it was a coveted piece of a lost manuscript but because his first son, Steven, had drawn a picture of a car with two people on it (possibly the earliest surviving portrait of Alan…). Obviously this was a highly prized manuscript if Alan was letting his sons use it for drawing paper!

And then the strangest thing occurred. In 2007, a long-thought lost Noël Coward play – The Better Half – was found by two Welsh researchers in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library (Prior to 1968, every play in the UK had to be submitted for approval by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office). Which led me to think, Love After All was written in 1959 and it would have had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office – so presumably it was hidden somewhere in the British Library….

Sure enough, with the assistance of the British Library, I ventured down to London in 2007 and discovered, within the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, there was a pristine copy of Love After All, apparently never once accessed since being stored. As both Archivist and geek, this is equivalent of the moment Indiana Jones discovered the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Admittedly, I had to deal with fewer snakes although the bag check system at the British Library can be quite intimidating….

It’s one of the high points in my career as an Archivist, finding Love After All and restoring the complete Ayckbourn play canon for the first time since, in all probability, the ’60s. Hence why it’s one of my favourite things, even in a scanned form.

Am extract from the Love After All manuscript (©

There is an enduring mystery, I suppose – aside from what the second version of Love After All was like as, sadly, that has never been recovered. That mystery is why no-one had never previously looked to the British Library for the play. But one could ask that about the Coward play or any of the discoveries which turn up in apparently obvious places. I always presume that with Alan having said the play was lost, people took him on his word and, to be fair, Alan is a person perpetually looking forward to his next play or production and never had the inclination nor desire to seek out the play. But there were other, often far more qualified, researchers than myself looking into Alan’s work who missed this opportunity.

But that’s by-the-by. What we have is a manuscript of, admittedly, a fairly ropey play which will forever be something I’m inordinately fond of! It generated a fair amount of publicity too including coverage in The Times – which was slightly strange having previously been a journalist and more used to writing rather than being the news! It’s a script that is never going to ever strike anyone as a founding triumph of a playwright who would become one of the most successful British writers of the 20th century. But it’s a little bit of history which I’m proud to have contributed towards restoring.

Before They Were Famous…

As anyone who follows the Stephen Joseph Theatre on Twitter (and if not, why not?) may have recently seen, this year’s BAFTA Award winning Best Actress Jodie Comer made her professional stage debut at the SJT.

Jodie Comer as Ruby in the world premiere of The Price Of Everything (2010) at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough © Tony Bartholomew (tony.bartholomew@btinternet.com)

Jodie, of course, has sprung to fame with the hugely popular and acclaimed BBC America series Killing Eve as the fashionable yet psychopathic assassin Villanelle. Yet in 2010 she made her professional stage debut in the world premiere of Fiona Evans’ play The Price Of Everything in The Round at the SJT.

And whilst the play received mixed reviews, The Times critic Libby Purves saw a star in the making in Jodie when she wrote: ‘[She is] in her first stage outing (not even a drama school graduate) and gives a sensationally natural, well-judged performance: Lairy, challenging, then suddenly childlike.’

Jodie isn’t obviously the first discovery the SJT has made (and it helps the SJT having a phenomenal casting agent in the shape of Sarah Hughes) and this week’s blog is going to head back over the decades and pick a notable figure from each decade who went on to what was, presumably, unimagined success on stage and screen. Admittedly, picking just one person a decade means we’re missing a lot of talent but perhaps we’ll do a follow up blog in the future to look at some of the other famous faces who made early steps at the SJT.

Heading back to the 1950s, when the Library Theatre was founded in Scarborough in 1955 by Stephen Joseph. Our first famous face isn’t actually an actor today (nor has been since 1964), but he started as an actor, had every intention of being a professional actor and then became one of the the UK”s most successful living playwrights. I’m referring, of course, to Alan Ayckbourn.

Alan Ayckbourn (left) in The Ornamental hermit at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957 © Scarborough Theatre Trust

We know Alan today as a prolific and popular writer and director who has won numerous plaudits and awards over six decades of playwriting. Yet he joined the Library Theatre in 1957 as an Acting Stage Manager (a stage manager who also acted). He was not then an aspiring writer but had his eyes fixed firmly on the stage and during his acting career between 1957 and 1964, it’s arguable he became one of the most experienced in-the-round actors in the country. Harold Pinter, who directed him in his professional directorial debut of The Birthday Party in 1959, noted Alan was ‘born to play Hamlet’. Yet, fate took Alan on a different path and he became a playwright, director and Artistic Director. And in doing so, was in part responsible for finding and employing quite a few actors (and writers and directors and technicians and so on) who would go on to great success in theatre and the wider Arts industry.

John Nettles in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Sparrow (1967) at the Library Theatre, Scarborough © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Two of Alan’s early finds are illustrated in our first two choices from the 1960s and the 1970s. In 1967, Alan premiered his little known play The Sparrow at the Library Theatre. Amongst the cast was Robert Powell – although he was already making an impact in the acting world and three years later would be cast in the BBC’s Doomwatch before finding international fame in 1977 as the titular character in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. But of equal note was a young actor named John Nettles who played the role of Ed in the play very early in his professional career (so early in fact, that according to Wikipedia, he wasn’t even working professionally as has only apparently been active professionally since 1969 – which given The Sparrow and the fact John was also working with Alan at BBC Radio prior to 1969 too is patently incorrect). John would go on to a hugely successful stage and screen career working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and, perhaps most famously, on television in the TV detective series Bergerac and Midsomer Murders.

Bob Peck in the world premiere of Leonard Barras’s The Shy Gasman (1970) at the Library Theatre, Scarborough © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Moving into the 1970s and possibly Alan’s most famous discovery (he once joked he had discovered this actor in a cellar in Leeds and had been searching cellars for comparative talents since!) with Bob Peck – or Robert Peck as he was then credited. Alan had discovered Bob in Leeds during the late 1960s where he had employed him at the BBC (and, not that we’re going to keep picking at this particular scab, at least four years prior to Wikipedia crediting his professional acting career starting…) before bringing him over to Scarborough. Strictly speaking, Bob was employed during the 1969 season as an actor and assistant stage manager at the Library Theatre, but we’re going to start with his first full season as a professional actor in 1970 which included roles in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Story So Far… and The Shy Gasman by Leonard Barras. Bob went on to a phenomenal acting career including both the RSC and National Theatre, but on television went from the likes of Z Cars to the water-cooler moment of 1985 as Ronald Craven in the thriller Edge of Darkness. And if you’re of a certain age (i.e. mine), you’ll always remember him as Robert Muldoon in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (‘Clever girl…’). He would work again with Alan – coincidentally as he shot to fame with Edge of Darkness – in Alan’s production of A Chorus Of Disapproval for the National Theatre in 1985.

Emma Chambers as Lucy in the world premiere of Invisible Friends at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (1989) © Scarborough Theatre Trust

Staying in the 1980s and I’m going for the much loved, late actress Emma Chambers. Although Emma was probably best known for her role of Alice Tinker in the BBC series The Vicar of Dibley, Emma got her Equity card working for Alan in the 1987 world premiere of Henceforward… at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, a role she revived with Ian McKellen and Jane Asher in the West End. In 1989, she would star as Lucy in the world premiere of Invisible Friends at the SJT, again reprising the role in London opposite Claire Skinner with Alan’s 1991 National Theatre production. Claire would also notably feature in the 1989 / 90 seasons at the SJT including Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Othello which included Michael Gambon, Adam Godley, Ken Stott and Rupert Vansittart amongst others.

Lia Williams with her son, Joshua, in Scarborough 1990 © Yorkshire Regional Newspapers

Moving into the 1990s and there’s a plethora of choices (and that doesn’t even include Janie Dee who has always credited Alan with an early boost to her career in Dreams From A Summer House despite the fact she was doing pretty well for herself at that point). There’s also Tamzin Outhwaite who Alan cast as a chorus-girl in his production of They’re Playing Our Song and subsequently played Evelyn in his 1997 revival of Absent Friends just prior to her finding national fame in the BBC soap EastEnders – and a very successful subsequent TV and stage career. But I think I’m going with Lia Williams, who was a relatively unknown actress when Alan cast her as Angie in his body-swapping play Body Language at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1990 and who is generally acknowledged to then have had her breakout moment the following year when Alan cast her as the lead in the West End premiere of his epic The Revengers’ Comedies. In Body Language, Lia had to both portray a glamour model as well as – after an unfortunate accident involving a helicopter and a slightly deranged surgeon – an obese journalist. Lia has gone on to an acclaimed career on stage and screen working with the RSC and NT, in the West End and on Broadway as well as in television series such as The Crown and Seaforth.

Billy Howle (centre with sword) in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Orvin – Champion of Champions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (2003) © Tony Bartholomew (tony.bartholomew@btinternet.com)

Entering a new millennium and our final breakout star – if we take Jodie Comer as the’10s choice – is an example of how the SJT encourages talent from a very young age. For example, Joanne Frogatt of Downtown Abbey fame took her first steps on stage as part of the SJT’s Rounders youth group. Another alumni of Rounders is Billy Howle who made his professional stage debut in 2003 at the SJT in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Orvin: Champion of Champions – a collaboration with the National Youth Music Theatre. Billy gained early attention in Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts in New York, before coming to wider public attention with the acclaimed movie On Chesil Beach. He was recently seen opposite Richard Gere and Helen McRory on the BBC’s MotherFatherSon and Chris Pine in Netflix’s Outlaw King.

And that’s barely even skimming the surface of talent who have worked – both experienced and inexperienced – at the SJT in Scarborough. You can find a complete index of actors who have worked at the SJT since 1955 at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here. It’s worth look to see how the SJT is an example of how vital regional theatres are in the UK to discovering and promoting talent, be it on-stage or off-stage, and how, who knows, the next time you’re at a regional theatre like the SJT, you may be looking at a future award-winning actress or actor or soon-to-be household name.

Favourite Things: The Square Cat

As part of my weekly blog, I’m going to be regularly delving into the Ayckbourn Archive to highlight a favourite item pertaining to each of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays (which, given the sheer number of plays, should keep me going for some time regardless of anything else I write!)

The Ayckbourn Archive is full of fascinating items – from behind-the-scenes photographs to rare manuscripts, author’s notes to correspondence – and this is my chance to highlight a few. They may not necessarily be of great historical significance or offer a piercing insight into the playwright. But all of them are items which have given me pleasure or I’ve found interesting in my role as Archivist.

So we’ll step back in time 60 years to Alan Ayckbourn’s professional playwriting debut, The Square Cat, which opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959 and which was directed by Alan Ayckbourn’s most influential mentor, Stephen Joseph.

Alan wrote his first four plays under a pseudonym, Roland Allen. This was largely because, by 1959, he had been an established actor in Scarborough since 1957 and he wished to differentiate between the actor and the writer; not that they were a secret, Stephen Joseph wrote in the original programme that Alan and Roland were one and the same.

The name is also a nod to how Alan wrote the play and this is where my first favourite thing comes into play. Alan has long since acknowledged that his first play was a collaboration between him and his first wife, Christine Roland, as Alan’s biographer Paul Allen notes: “The Square Cat, billed as by ‘Roland Allen’, was largely the product of her [Christine Roland’s] knowledge of stagecraft and his [Alan Ayckbourn’s] nascent gift for plotting and dialogue.” When choosing his writing pseudonym, Alan combined his wife’s name (Christine Roland) and his name (Alan Ayckbourn).

Alan Ayckbourn & Christine Roland (© Haydonning Ltd)

When curating an exhibition for Alan Ayckbourn’s 60th birthday in 2009, I came across this photo for the first time. Taken on the set of The Square Cat, it is the only photo pertaining to the play’s production with the author(s) Roland Allen: Alan and Christine together. One cannot imagine that the 20 year old man in the photo would believe he would still be writing plays 60 years on nor that he would achieve such extraordinary success.

Although Christine apparently played a small role in helping Alan to write his second play, Love After All, she wouldn’t contribute to Alan’s play-writing after that point even though Alan continued to use the pseudonym from 1959 – 1961. He only dropped it in 1962 when he left the Library Theatre for a period to help found the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, with Stephen Joseph. From that point forwards, all his plays were attributed to Alan Ayckbourn.

Tying in with this, the Ayckbourn Archive has a little oddity from the original programme for The Square Cat (and how proof-reading was as essential then as it is now – so says the man who yesterday had Alan Ayckbourn ‘indicted’ into the American Theatre Hall of Fame until a sharp-eyed reader caught the mistake!). The programme for the world premiere production mis-spells the pseudonym as ‘Roland Allan’ as can be seen below; this was a genuine mistake as flyers for the season produced in advance of the programme had correctly spelt the name ‘Allen’. It’s just a quirky little note for the play for which Alan would reputedly earn £47 and which, it’s fair to say, had more than a little impact on his life to come!

Extract from The Square Cat programme (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

You Spin Me Round…

Yesterday I had the opportunity to lead the OutReach Play Reading at the Stephen Joseph Theatre exploring Alan Ayckbourn’s popular play A Chorus Of Disapproval.

A Chorus Of Disapproval premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, in 1984 before Alan directed a hugely successful production at the National Theatre in 1985 which won the Olivier, Evening Standard and DRAMA Awards for Best Comedy.

The original production of A Chorus Of Disapproval where the double revolve can – just – be seen on the ground (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Preparing for the play reading, it struck me that there’s an aspect of the world premiere of A Chorus Of Disapproval that is absolutely unique to that production, that was completely integral to the play as first conceived and which has never been repeated subsequently. And which is barely even remembered at the playwright’s home theatre and key notes for which have only just been discovered within The Bob Watson Archive at the SJT.

As anyone who is a fan of Alan Ayckbourn will know, the vast majority of his writing has premiered in Scarborough in one of the three homes of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The majority of these have also been staged in-the-round for which Alan predominantly writes; the idea that Scarborough was ever a try-out for the West End was always nonsensical as Alan writes his plays for in-the-round performance and you can count on one hand and have a couple of fingers and a thumb left over for the number of in-the-round Ayckbourn productions seen in the West End.

The opening state of the two revolves for the original production of A Chorus Of Disapproval (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But being in-the-round applies to most of Alan’s plays, so what makes A Chorus Of Disapproval so special? In 1980, a double revolve was installed in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round for Alan Ayckbourn’s musical Suburban Strains. It was used several times, but did not became a permanent feature of the theatre.

What’s been forgotten – and largely lost over time – is Alan had the double revolve re-installed for the original production of A Chorus Of Disapproval; a central circle revolve with a second revolve running around it so the stage could revolve in two different directions. Alan wanted to keep the staging for A Chorus Of Disapproval as simple as possible and – working with the designer Edward Lipscomb and lighting designer Francis Lynch – came up with the idea that a few props moved into different positions on the revolve alongside different lighting states were all that was needed to keep the play moving quickly whilst giving the audience enough to realise the play had moved into different locations (in Suburban Strains, the revolves had largely been used as a device to indicate where the lead character, Caroline, was in her life as the play flitted backwards and forwards in time). For A Chorus Of Disapproval, it also eliminated the need to haul scenery and props on and off stage between the fast-moving scenes.

Another example of the revolves position from later in the play (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Within The Bob Watson Archive, there are the plans for the states of the revolve for each scene of the play and how they would be moved for each scene. This is recorded nowhere else. Of course, if you have a Samuel French script of A Chorus of Disapproval – or indeed any of Alan’s plays – there’s rarely any mention of staging them in the round and they frequently give the inaccurate impression of being intended for end-stage performance. But, more than this, the revolve is not even reflected in the original rehearsal manuscripts. The stage directions, whilst obviously written with the round in mind, do not refer to the revolves, so all decisions regarding this were made by the director whilst in rehearsal.

Given A Chorus Of Disapproval is one of the most frequently performed Ayckbourn plays since 1984, it is extraordinary to think that it has never been staged again as the playwright originally envisaged and produced – and likely never will given the impracticalities of installing double revolves or even working out how the play was originally produced with them.

But it’s a fine example of how archives can offer insights that would otherwise not be recorded or preserved for posterity. Were it not for the discovery of the plans for the revolves at The Bob Watson Archive, it would be barely remembered how unique the original production of the play was.