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.”

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