Occasionally we’ll be taking a look behind-the-scenes of some of Alan Ayckbourn’s most significant plays. Foremost amongst his play of the late 1970s is Just Between Ourselves – yet for all its significance, it’s not as well known as many of the playwright’s other plays of the period.
For those unfamiliar with the play – or those who want to learn a little more – here’s a background and behind the scenes look at the play and its history.
By 1975, Alan Ayckbourn had been the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, for three years and although – artistically and financially – the theatre-in-the-round was proving a success, it was still a period of uncertainty for the company.
In 1974, North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee had declined a request for a 40 week season at the Scarborough Library. Although later rescinded, the decision was accompanied by a statement from the committee that 1975 would be the company’s final full year at the library. It was made it clear in no uncertain terms the company had no future at the venue whilst, meanwhile, the search for a new home for the company was proving frustrating and fruitless. Twenty years after the company had made its home in the town, its future was more uncertain then ever.
In this environment, Alan was still attempting to move the company forward despite being patently aware of the limitations it faced in a venue where it was not wanted and – in any case – had long since outgrown.
Against this background, Alan wrote what he he considers one of his darkest plays. The play was written against the background of a harsh winter on the east coast with the North Sea winds howling around the upper floors of the house where he lives in Scarborough. Certainly, the bleak Yorkshire winter appears to have influenced his writing and seeped through into the spirit of the play. Just Between Ourselves was written between Christmas and the New Year and apparently delivered to the actors at 4am on New Year’s Day 1976. This would be the first of three plays which Alan would term his ‘winter plays’ and it would mark a profound departure in tone for the playwright.
Prior to Just Between Ourselves, he had generally written his plays during spring for a summer production; however, it wasn’t just the change of writing pattern that would affect the play’s content. Ever since Stephen Joseph had commissioned Alan’s first play, The Square Cat, in 1959, Alan had been aware that he was writing for a summer audience that would in large part consist of tourists visiting Scarborough. Although he would not shy away from darker elements in his plays, he felt his job was to provide something which would entertain people and make them want to visit the theatre during their summer holidays (even when writing The Norman Conquests trilogy, he was aware his primary audience would probably not get the opportunity to see all three plays and thus they are still self-contained works). Just Between Ourselves offered a new opportunity. He was not writing for the tourist season, but a winter season which would primarily attract local people and, presumably, people who were supportive of the theatre and Alan’s work. It was an opportunity to take a risk.
What begins as a recognisable suburban-set Ayckbourn comedy soon transforms into a play in which two couple’s marriages deteriorate before our eyes and which climaxes with a character having suffered a breakdown as the result of her relationship with her husband and mother-in-law. There is humour in the play, albeit painful humour, but to his credit Alan Ayckbourn having set off down a dark path does not flinch from an ending which offers little hope and which, as many theatre critics noted, a final laugh which practically dies on the audience’s lips.
Behind The Scenes: Original Concepts
In the earliest existing handwritten notes for the play – held in the Ayckbourn Archive in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University Of York – the emphasis is more firmly set on Dennis, who was originally undergoing his own meltdown and his actions are largely determined by depression and mood-swings. Further notes also suggest the character of Neil was equally as damaged, being a hypochondriac who attempts suicide during the play; this may have been dropped due to similarities with Alan’s play Absurd Person Singular where Eva’s attempts at suicide dominate the second act. As it is, only Dennis’s cheerful disposition was retained from conception to finish, his depressive elements were dropped placing the emphasis far more firmly on Vera’s distressed state of mind; as the playwright himself notes though, even Dennis’s cheery facade begins to crack by the end of the play.
In an interview with the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette in May 1976, Alan Ayckbourn noted he wrote the play in just two days and went straight into rehearsals: “I started Just Between Ourselves on the Thursday, finished it on the Friday, had it typed up on the Saturday, duplicated on the Sunday and into rehearsals on the Monday.”
It was certainly a departure and even the playwright harboured uncertainties about the play; he would not even send a copy of the script to his agent, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay, until after the first read-through as he was prepared to apparently scrap the play and write another one had it not gone well. When she did eventually receive it, Peggy was very impressed and believed it to be one of his best plays.
The play was premiered in the Library Theatre on 28 January and in a departure for Alan Ayckbourn, it was staged three-sided rather than in the round. This was primarily due to the fact that the larger Concert Room was unavailable during the theatre’s winter season and the company had to perform in the smaller Lecture Room which was not large enough for in-the-round productions and barely had enough space to cope with a set which featured a Morris Minor on stage! That the company had even managed to get the shell of a car up to the first floor of the Library practically defies belief and Alan thinks it may well have been the final straw for the Chief Librarian to come into work and find a car outside his office. When the play was revived for the summer season at the Library Theatre in 1976 in the library’s larger Concert Room, it stayed three-sided as Alan did not want to re-direct and re-stage the play.
Behind The Scenes: A Minor Problem
One of the key elements of Just Between Ourselves is the Morris Minor which features in the set. Not only did finding a car prove a challenge for the original production, but also getting the vehicle onto the first floor of Scarborough’s public library was very problematic. In the end, the stage management team arranged to have the car dismantled before being taken piece by piece up to the first floor and then being reassembled within the performance space. Although the car used has traditionally been a Morris Minor, the playwright confirmed in 2020 that providing the car was true to the period of the 1970s, it could as easily be any ‘small popular car’ of the period as defined by the play’s stage directions.
The original production featured Christopher Godwin as Dennis, again originating a classic Ayckbourn character (his previous world premieres included playing Leonard in Time & Time Again, Norman in The Norman Conquests and Colin in Absent Friends) with Malcolm Hebden playing Neil. This was the first Ayckbourn play to feature the actor and would start a long relationship which eventually saw Malcolm become the theatre’s associate director. He would also play the same role 20 years on in Scarborough, noting he was too young to play the part originally and too old to play it for the revival!
Just Between Ourselves proved to be a great success at the Library Theatre and provided a strong finish to the winter season. The critics were generally impressed – considering it was a departure for the playwright – and the play received a strong set of reviews. It returned to the Library Theatre in the summer as part of the repertory season and the final performance on 11 September also marked the final performance at the Library Theatre. The company having found an apparently temporary new home at a former boys’ high school in the interim; the temporary home would actually become a permanent home for the next 20 years!
Behind The Scenes: Television Exposure
There probably exists more behind-the-scenes recorded footage for Just Between Ourselves than the world premiere of any other Ayckbourn play. In 1976, Alan was the subject of two major television documentaries, both of which focused on Just Between Ourselves and between them broadcast footage of the first read-through, rehearsals and actual performance footage of the play. The play was featured in the culture series Arena as well as the documentary series The Playwrights, one of which focused on Alan Ayckbourn.
Inevitably the play was picked up for the West End by the producer Michael Codron, although it was not the success hoped for nor anticipated. There is a strong case here that while Alan was developing as a playwright, his London audience was not moving with him and had pigeon-holed him strictly as a comedy writer / farceur rather than the tragicomic writer he had been ever since writing Time & Time Again in 1971. The West End transfer opened during April 1977, soon after Bedroom Farce had opened at the National Theatre; a play for which the NT received heavy criticism for it being too commercial and Alan too commercial a playwright. It was later pointed out that, ironically, the NT received the commercial play (which would go on to phenomenal success) whilst the West End got the uncommercial and difficult play.
In hindsight, the reasons for the play’s lack of success were most likely down to preconceived expectations and its reception, rather than the piece itself. On paper, the talent assembled was noteworthy with Alan Strachan as director, having already directed Confusions in the West End in 1975 and who went on to be considered a pre-eminent director of Alan’s plays. It starred Colin Blakely as Dennis and Michael Gambon as Neil. Alan’s regard for Gambon’s interpretation of his work has long been noted and of Blakely, the playwright once noted he got Dennis ‘very right’. By the same token it is widely accepted the women in the play (Stephanie Turner, Rosemary Leach and Constance Chapman) were all excellent.
The reviews, whilst largely positive, were mixed and ranged from descriptions of it as a masterpiece to a misjudged mistake. However, there was an acknowledgment that Alan was maturing as a playwright and courageous in his ambitions for the play and, for the first time, the critics began to draw serious comparison with the work of Chekhov – long one of Alan’s inspirations. Bizarrely, amongst the critical reviews, several critics poured scorn on him for it not being the advertised comedy when the play had never actually been advertised as a comedy!
Alan also felt this is the play where the critics began to realise that the Scarborough productions tended to be superior to the London ones. The need to cast star names in the West End was beginning to tell on the plays. The ensemble works created in the intimate in-the-round Scarborough venue were not being well-served by their transition to large proscenium arch theatres with star names on the hoardings; the rigid dependency of the West End on fame, for right or wrong, was having a negative impact on Alan’s plays.
To be fair to the London production, Alan himself knew it would be a hard sell as it was a play that he deliberately felt pushed him in new directions and that might not necessarily sit well with some sections of his established audience. That it came away from London with the prestigious Evening Standard Award for Best Play award and a largely sympathetic press, was something of a relief for the playwright: “With that play I knew I was taking a gamble. But the critics saw what I was doing and let me develop. I expected them to be more fierce.” At the time, Alan’s agent was concerned about the future of the play, given its short run in London and mixed notices and wondered whether the regional theatres would pick the play up. It’s genuinely hard to know whether these concerns were warranted given the wide exposure it was about to receive and which ensured it would be very much in demand in the aftermath of it closing in London.
A year after it closed in London, the play reached a far wider audience than it would ever have done in the theatre when it was screened on television. The adaptation of Just Between Ourselves stands as one of the better Ayckbourn television adaptations and had a large audience, although the dying fall ending was marred somewhat in Alan’s opinion by the continuity announcer cheerily flagging up the next programme. The adaptation featured Richard Briers as Dennis with Rosemary Leach reprising her West End role of Vera (for more details of the television adaptation, see here). The play would also be adapted twice for BBC radio by the director Gordon House in 1984 and 2008 and also released as an audio play in America by LA Theatre Works with the acclaimed actor Alfred Molina playing the role of
Just Between Ourselves was quickly published with Samuel French picking up the acting edition in 1978 and the play was included in the mass market hardback, Joking Apart And Other Plays, which was published by Chatto & Windus in 1979 and by Penguin as a popular softcover volume in 1982. Meanwhile it quickly proved popular with regional repertory companies where it proved to be an enduring success. Like Absent Friends before it, the reputation Just Between Ourselves now enjoys was built more from the grional reception to the play rather than the West End reaction.
Twenty years after the play received its world premiere, Alan made the decision to revive it. Mirroring the events of two decades previously, the Scarborough company had outgrown what was originally intended as a temporary home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. In 1996, the company would move into its first permanent home in a state of the art conversion of the town’s former Odeon cinema. To mark the end of the company’s tenure at its second home, Alan scheduled Just Between Ourselves to be the play which closed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round as it had closed the Library Theatre. Due to his commitments with opening the new building, Alan decided not to direct the play and passed the reins over to Robin Herford. The play saw the theatre’s associate director, Malcolm Hebden reprise the role he created of Neil, marking his final performance with the company. The play was an enormous success and confirmed Herford’s talents as a gifted director of Alan’s plays.
In 2009, the play was revived in a very successful production by the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton, as part of its Ayckbourn At 70 celebration. The play representing early Ayckbourn alongside revivals of Man Of The Moment (1988) and Private Fears In Public Places (2004). The decision to stage it in the major celebration of the 50th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat, re-affirming its position as one of the most notable and significant Ayckbourn plays of the 1970s.
Look out for another behind-the-scenes look at Just Between Ourselves next week on the blog with an article by Alan Ayckbourn about the significance of the play.