Behind the Scenes of Unseen Ayckbourn

Did you know that Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends could have been called A Divided House or Time And Time Again might have been The Sporting Gnome?

Or that Absurd Person Singular was originally conceived as being set in three living rooms? Or that Woman in Mind would initially have been a Man in Mind?

Did you know Alan was first published in 1954 at the age of just 15? Or that four complete plays exist that were written prior to his first acknowledged play The Square Cat?

They’re just some of the intriguing insights in the plays of Alan Ayckbourn to be found in Unseen Ayckbourn: Anniversary Edition, a limited edition of 50 books out now -which is selling out very quickly (update 20 September – there’s just 14 copies left!).

But what is Unseen Ayckbourn and why Unseen Ayckbourn?

As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, one aspect of the job that I love is finding details about the alternative life of plays – what they might have been called, what they might have been originally about or how they changed during the writing process. Why some plays never got written or why some plays have been produced but then withdrawn so that few people have seen them or even heard of them.

All this stems from an early discovery of a play called Sight Unseen, which was announced in The Stage newspaper amongst several other publications in 1980 and for which tickets went on sale. As Ayckbourn fans know, there is no play called Sight Unseen in the canon because Alan announced it but then didn’t write it, instead producing Season’s Greetings.

That inspired me to delve deeper into this side of Alan’s writing and to mark Alan Ayckbourn’s 70th birthday in 2009, I wrote Sight Unseen as a birthday gift for the playwright. This extraordinarily rare edition was unlike any that followed and included colour illustrations alongside its glimpse into the playwright’s lost, withdrawn and never written plays.

The cover for the extremely rare first edition of Sight Unseen.

As with all these things, numerous people saw this publication and encouraged me to publish it (albeit in a slightly more affordable format!). So the book was re-written and expanded into a mass market edition of Sight Unseen named in honour of the play which had inspired this fascination. The success of which led me to later revise and expand the book even further before relaunching it as the slightly more self-explanatory Unseen Ayckbourn; admittedly a slight misnomer as most of the plays have been seen, but generally by very few people.

Unseen Ayckbourn has subsequently had a couple of editions culminating in the present limited edition to mark Alan Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday and the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut – which can be ordered here. Whilst all these works are essentially peripheral to the playwright’s long and successful writing career, I genuinely believe they offer an insight into the writer and his methods.

Or are just plain fascinating.

In the case of the play Sight Unseen, nothing else was revealed about this ‘play’ following the announcement in 1980. But then in 2010, some random hand-written notes were discovered in archive offering a glimpse into the original unwritten idea for Sight Unseen. Think of it as a cross between Season’s Greetings and the random murderer thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us and you’re on the right lines.

That’s just one of the many fascinating stories in a book about plays we’re very familiar with but which could have been quite different – a Ten Times Table not confined to a single location, for example, or The Jollies as a satire on reality television or Absent Friends not as a real time play, but a dinner party viewed from the perspective of each sex.

The now out-of print original mass market edition of Sight Unseen

And then there’s the plays which were written but which you’ve probably never heard of – even if you’re the most dedicated researcher on Ghost Stories anyone? The Party Game? Bedside Manners? There’s a significant number of plays written but which have barely seen the light of day – and a number which have never even left the author’s desk such as A Case of Missing Wives.

Whilst the vast majority of these plays will never be produced again or released for production, Unseen Ayckbourn offers a peek inside – often with exclusive extracts and quotes from the playwright – at what are, to all intents and purposes, lost Ayckbourn plays.

All the information from the book is sourced from the Ayckbourn Archive or The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre or the playwright himself. Many of the entries are drawn from his own notes which have been preserved for posterity and – at first glance – might not actually seem significant. Unseen Ayckbourn is the result of poring over these notes and speaking to the playwright and investigating contemporary material to discover what was happening in the playwright’s mind. Most of the material drawn upon is either hidden deep in the Ayckbourn Archive or not accessible to the public.

For the Anniversary Edition, the book – limited to just 50 numbered and signed copies – has been updated and includes a complete play list of all Ayckbourn acknowledged works to the present day as well as new entires within the book looking at more recent discoveries and plays. This version of the book also has an introductory essay exploring the significance of Alan Ayckbourn and his plays to British theatre over the decades.

But if you’re an Ayckbourn fan and share my passion for the quirky or the unusual, then Unseen Ayckbourn is just something which – hopefully – will intrigue you. If you’ve been to seen Alan’s revival of his classic Season’s Greetings at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this summer, you might be fascinated to discover for the first few performances in 1980, Uncle Harvey had a wife – Shirley – who was also present, if unseen, at the revels.

And if you’re intrigued by the thought of which existing plays might have been called Grass Widow, The Silver Collection, IOU or Am I Famous Yet? then this is the book for you.

And if you are an Ayckbourn fan, the Anniversary Edition gives you a chance to be recorded for posterity on the playwright’s official website. Anyone who orders a copy and would like to, can have their book number and name recorded on a special page on both the playwright’s and author’s websites.

Unseen Ayckbourn: Anniversary Edition is limited to 50 copies (just 14 left as of writing) and each copy is signed by the author and numbered. It is priced at £15 (plus P&P) and can only be ordered direct from the author. Email if you would like to order a copy or further details can be found at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

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