The Summer of ’57

“Why did Alan Ayckbourn end up in Scarborough of all places?”

It’s one of the most frequently asked questions I receive as Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist. And, actually, it’s rather a good question.

Alan Ayckbourn was born in Hampstead, London, in 1939 – he doesn’t recall ever venturing north of Potter’s Bar before the age of 16. Yet since the age of 18, he’s essentially been based in and associated with the east coast town of Scarborough in North Yorkshire. So how did this unlikely association come to pass?

By early 1957, Alan was working at Leatherhead Theatre Club as a Stage Manager with some small acting roles. He’d left school the previous year and worked consistently in theatre with an eye towards acting as a professional career.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1957 when he joined the Library Theatre company in Scarborough (© Haydonning Ltd)

At Leatherhead, the stage manager – Rodney Wood – asked Alan if he’d like to join him for a job at the Library Theatre in Scarborough for the summer. Alan apparently had only the vaguest idea where the seaside resort of Scarborough was and had never heard of the company, which had been formed by Stephen Joseph two years previously.

However, he was intrigued by the notion of theatre-in-the-round and joined Rodney in a visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Assembly Hall in Fitzroy Square, London, to see the company perform Sartre’s Huis Clos during Spring 1957; the most likely date being 14 April.

The performance had a profound effect on Alan.

“[It] sticks out still in my mind as one of the most exciting things I’d ever seen in the theatre…. It was an absolute knockout. It was a pretty racy play, for its time, you know. And I thought, ‘This is terrific.’ I also liked it because theatre-in-the-round had no scenery and that meant less work.”

Alan agreed to join the Library Theatre company with Rodney and spent two weeks in London in rehearsals for the season’s four plays. Alan was predominantly a stage manager, but also had small acting roles in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and Catherine Prynne’s The Ornamental Hermit.

The company then moved to Scarborough with Alan still having no idea where he was going was other than the vague direction of turn right at York! Little did he know how important a part this seaside town was going to play in his life.

“I remember I got off the train packed with holidaymakers and this bracing air and smell of chips. I said, ‘Wow!’ Because I was an inland child living in north Sussex, one of the great treats as a child was a trip to the seaside – so, dear reader, I bought the sweet shop. I came to the seaside and stayed. I thought, ‘This can’t get better’.”

The Library Theatre itself was like nothing he had previously encountered. Based in the Concert Room on the first floor of the public library, the theatre was a temporary affair re-assembled for each summer and winter season.

Alan Ayckbourn working at the Library Theatre in 1958 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The seating was built onto portable rostra designed by Stephen Joseph with the stage space accessible by just two entrances – one of which was the public entrance. There was a cramped shared dressing room and a single toilet for both the company and the audience.

Despite its limitations, it obviously had an attraction for the aspiring actor.

“The auditorium was a makeshift affair; borrowed seats on rickety rostra in a small airless room of the public library. On the hot evenings, senior citizens would be supported from the theatre gasping for fresh sea air. Small children would, when carried away by the action, occasionally slip through the gaps in the seating and require rescuing. The stage floor was parquet and treacherously polished; the walls covered in untouchable, light green flock wallpaper. All in all an unpromising venue to present – as we saw it at the time – new work in new ways to new audiences.”

The work was the driving force, pioneered by Stephen Joseph, who Alan had actually yet to meet. This was soon to change in the most unexpected circumstance.

“I was on the lighting, working this dimmer board, which was very rudimentary and had these vicious slider dimmers that sparked and often gave you quite nasty shocks! I was doing a blackout with my arm across the top of them, trying to pull all seven down in sync – so that there was a blackout on stage. And I was suddenly aware of this huge man standing behind me, staring. And I said, ‘Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry this is a restricted area. Professional people working here.’ And he said, ‘There’s a good way to do that you know?’ I said, ‘eh?’ ‘A better way than you’re doing it,’ he said, ‘You’re going to miss a dimmer one day.’ I said, ‘oh, yes…’ and he said, ‘look, let me show you.’ I said ‘Just excuse me, I’m just about to start the first scene’ and I brought the lights all up again and he said, ‘no, no, what you need is a piece of wood,’ and he handed me a piece of wood and he said, “now lay it across the top of the dimmers and now we pull it down and there you have it. Instant blackout.’ And I said, ‘You’ve just blacked out the scene!’ And I could hear the actors blundering around in the dark and I whipped the lights up again and then they all came out through the curtains afterwards and they, ‘What the hell went on there!? My great speech!’ And I said, ‘this great big man came and did all the…’ – I was like Stan Laurel and he said, ‘Oh, that’ll be Stephen.’ And that was my introduction to Stephen Joseph.”

Stephen Joseph & Alan Ayckbourn (© Haydonning Ltd)

Stephen was to become a surrogate father figure to Alan and would inspire and shape his early career. It was Stephen who encouraged Alan to write plays and who moved him from acting towards directing. It is no over-exaggeration to state that without Stephen Joseph’s guiding hand and influence, Alan Ayckbourn would not have become the writer and director we know today.

Following the 1957 summer season, Alan took a job at the Oxford Playhouse for the winter. Although he enjoyed this and was offered the chance to stay, Stephen Joseph contacted him with the offer of more acting opportunities during the summer 1958 season at the Library Theatre.

The rest is history, Alan returned to Scarborough and that winter – after complaining about his acting roles to Stephen – he was commissioned to write his first professional play, The Square Cat, which premiered at the Library Theatre on 30 July 1959.

Two years laters, again with Stephen’s encouragement, he made his professional directing debut with a production of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. When Stephen died tragically young in 1967, Alan was seen as the natural successor and, in 1972, he became the Artistic Director of the company.

Sixty-two years after first arriving, Alan is still in Scarborough and still writing and directing for the company which Stephen Joseph founded in 1955.

“The first question everybody asks me is ‘what am I doing here?’ My answer is always the same – it was a happy accident that I came here and I am happy I chose to stay.”

You can find out more about the Stephen Joseph Theatre and Alan Ayckbourn’s relationship with it in The SJT section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. © Haydonning Ltd, please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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