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So let’s tie that into the broader context of what the position is regarding Alan Ayckbourn’s early withdrawn plays and what their status is.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Back to the broader picture and Standing Room Only is one of six of Alan’s eight earliest plays which have been withdrawn.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 What does withdrawn actually mean?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So the first question is, why has Alan Ayckbourn withdrawn six of his first ten plays?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!

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