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.

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