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.

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