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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.