Favourite Things: Family Circles

Family Circles is Alan Ayckbourn’s 10th play and is actually one of his few plays that I haven’t manage to see since becoming an Ayckbourn fan in 1987.

It premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1970 as The Story So Far… before being renamed as Me Times Me Times Me for its pre-West End tour the following year. That mouthful was changed mid-tour to Me Times Me, although it still didn’t prevent the tour never making it into the West End; likewise for a tour the following year.

When it did eventually get into the vicinity of London at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in 1978, it was now called Family Circles; although as Alan Ayckbourn has pointed out on numerous occasions, no amount of name changes can hide the fact the play isn’t one of his best works.

Rarely revived now and unlikely ever to be touched again by the playwright, Family Circles is a play whose history – IMHO – is far more interesting than the play itself. The actress Celia Johnson – during its second tour in 1972 – commented to the producer Michael Codron when it was announced the play would not go into the West End, “It’s not right.” When he commiserated and said such was the way of these things, she apparently interrupted: “No, I meant the play’s not right.”

The 1970 Library Theatre acting company (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Despite this mixed history and reception, there are several things in the Ayckbourn Archive which are of interest regarding Family Circles. When the play opened in Scarborough in 1970, Alan Ayckbourn was Director of Productions (two years prior to becoming Artistic Director) and working with a rep company he had essentially founded the year before. Notable amongst its members was Bob Peck, Stephanie Turner, Elisabeth Sladen and Heather Stoney (now Lady Ayckbourn). At the time, it was customary for the Library Theatre to do publicity shots of the company at various locations around Scarborough. For 1970, the company ended up at Zoo & Marineland – which was once behind the town’s Open Air Theatre. The very informal pictures show a company having fun and my particular favourite is the company apparently locked up in a cage for wild animals.

Stephanie Turner in the world premiere of The Story So Far… at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1970 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Photographs are also significant to the production itself. The Story So Far… opened at the Library Theatre on 20 August 1970; at this point the theatre did not have a publicity officer and all press and marketing was organised by the theatre manger Ken Boden – as we shall soon see in a little more detail. Ken arranged for publicity photographs for the productions at the time with either himself or his son, Peter, taking mono production shots which would be distributed to the press and occasionally used for promotional postcards. The Story So Far… is notable as it is the earliest Ayckbourn world premiere to have colour shots of the production in archive. Admittedly the shots are of less than desirable quality, but it does at least give a little more insight into the production and the design decisions. The photos appear to have been taken mid-production during a public performance (life was a tad less stringent back then!) and most are blurred. The photograph here though features Stephanie Turner (who many readers may recall from the ’80s BBC hit Juliet Bravo) and, probably, Piers Rogers. It’s actually a relative rarity for the Stephen Joseph Theatre as there are very few colour productions photographs until the late 1990s.

Ken Boden’s press release for The Story So Far… at the Library Theatre, Scarborough (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Back to Ken Boden, who had been associated with the company since Stephen Joseph founded it in 1955, and who was responsible for running the theatre. One of his many responsibilities was handling press enquires and publicity including the writing of press releases. Within the archive are two press releases for The Story So Far…, one of which is… unusual and certainly like no press release any professional theatre would send today. As can be seen from the left, the press release – dated 3 August 1970 – is somewhat more informal than would be expected and perhaps offers a little too much personal information as we can see below.

The Story So Far… by Alan Ayckbourn

The above play opens at the Library Theatre on Thursday 20th August 1970 (World Premiere) and I am pleased to announce that Alan Ayckbourn has just finished writing it. As Theatre Manager I have been worried so it was good news today when he told me the play would be ready for duplicating tonight.

As you know, Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves both written by Mr Ayckbourn had their beginnings at the Library Theatre.

I enclose herewith a cutting from today’s Telegraph about the famous Library Theatre. We in Scarborough perhaps don’t think it is famous but it is known throughout the country particularly for new plays and the high quality of presentation. So much so that many visitors, even from abroad, make a point of coming to see the plays during the summer months.

I hope the foregoing might be of interest to your paper.”

As I say, an unusual item!

Programmes for the 1971 Me Times Me tour at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, and then the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

Finally, we have the strange case of the play which altered its name mid-tour. Having premiered at the Library Theatre in 1970, the West End producer Eddie Kulukundis took the play out on tour in 1971 with the intention of going into the West End. The play, renamed by Alan as Me Times Me Times Me, opened at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, but by the time it got to the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh soon afterwards, the play’s title has been shortened to Me Times Me – reflected in programmes, adverts and flyers. Quite what the cost would be too alter the name in this way is unknown, but it must have had an impact and was a certainly unusual choice – the reason for which appeared to have long since been lost to posterity. The programme covers on the right illustrate the changes between the two venues. An advert for the time also incorrectly asserted the play went to Oxford direct from the Edinburgh Festival; unless Edinburgh Festival ran into late September in 1970 (it really didn’t), it’s a bit of a desperate stretch to try and tie the play into famous festival via the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

All of which gives to show that even Alan Ayckbourn’s more problematic plays are still fascinating from an Archivist’s point of view.

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