The Middle Home: The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round

On 3 February 1996, the final performance took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.

This was the second home of the company created by Stephen Joseph during 1955 and which, since 1972, had been run by Alan Ayckbourn. The final production was Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves and two months later the company would move into it’s first purpose-designed home in a £5.2m conversion of the town’s former Odeon cinema, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn outside the Library Theatre
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But that was the end, what of the beginning? How and why did the Library Theatre company end up in a presumed temporary home of a former school for twenty years?

The Library Theatre, where Stephen Joseph formed the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company, had never been intended to be a permanent home. The seasonally operated theatre was based in the Concert Room on the first floor of Scarborough Library and for two decades had coped with the limitations of both the space and the facilities.

By the time Alan Ayckbourn was appointed Artistic Director of the company during 1972, it was obvious not only that the company has outgrown the venue but that it was no longer entirely welcome at the venue. An uneasy relationship culminated in 1975 with the company being given a year’s notice to leave the Library and find a new home; Alan recalls the reason given was that the Concert Room was required for ‘cultural purposes’! A slap in the face for Alan and a company if ever there was one.

The search for a new home began in earnest, but was not easy (and worthy of another article in the future). However, as the deadline to leave the Library came to pass, Scarborough Council unveiled a plan to create a new, purpose-built venue for the company.

As a result, the company sought a temporary home and found it the former Westwood County Modern School – colloquially known as Westwood – in the shadow of the town’s Valley Bridge.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

On 11 September 1976, the final performance at the Library Theatre took place with Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves (both the Library Theatre and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round closed with the same play). Twenty-one years after its first performance on 14 July 1955, the company founded by Stephen Joseph gathered post-performance and raised a plastic-cup of wine to the home which had served them at least adequately for two decades.

And then the company immediately began dismantling the theatre that evening for its transition to what was presumed to be a temporary home of no more than a couple of years at Westwood.

Every hour was vital, for the company had just 60 days to not only move from one venue to the next and have the opening play ready for production, but to also convert the middle floor of the former school into a working theatre.

The former gym of Westwood County Modern School on 25 August 1976
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

And all this on the bare minimum budget as the intention was to draw as little money as possible in order to fulfil a commitment to contribute towards the cost of the proposed new theatre to be built on Vernon Road car park opposite Scarborough Library.

Budgeted initially at between just £20,000 and £30,000, work began immediately on the conversion of Westwood with all hands frequently called to deck to help wherever possible with the school hall being converted into a new theatre-in-the-round space.

The new theatre space was designed by Scarborough architect George W Alderson, who had been working with the company for many years in the search for a new home. The design of the actual theatre-space drew upon lessons learnt at the Library Theatre, the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, Stephen Joseph’s work on theatre-in-the-round and the company’s own experiences.

The result was an intimate space with five rows seating approximately 300 people with the now familiar Y-shaped entrances (or vomitoirums) that are reproduced at the current home of the company; previously, confined by the structure and restrictions of the Library, the performance space had only two entrances both on the same side and twenty feet apart – this is the reason every Ayckbourn play prior to 1976 has just two stage entrances!

The conversion on 12 October 1976 to a theatre-in-the-round
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Facilities were basic and much of the design and decisions were based on short-term needs rather than long-term needs, given it was assumed the company would not need the building for more than three years.

The theatre was scheduled to open on 26 October 1996 with a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot – one of his few plays not to have originated or been seen in Scarborough – and work continued apace to finish the project for deadline.

To say it was close to the wire is an understatement. Alan Ayckbourn remembers that as he entered the technical rehearsal for Mr Whatnot, there was a cement-mixer outside the box office and the bar was lost beneath piles of timber. After five-and-half hours he emerged to find no signs of labour, the carpets laid, queues at the box office and people buying drinks in the bar. Work apparently was still going on until the very afternoon the theatre opened.

Nine weeks after leaving the Library Theatre, at a cost of £38,275, the Theatre In The Round At Westwood opened on 26 October as planned. Its was a phenomenal achievement and a great success for all concerned.

The actual performance space of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But the shine was soon taken off the achievement. As early as 1977, it became obvious that all was not running smoothly with the plans for a new theatre and after an earlier postponement, the council announced during the winter, that the project had been indefinitely postponed as the costs had – inexplicably – doubled to £1m during the course of a single year and the council did not have the finances for the development.

A temporary home was now a permanent home with the company having to make the most of what they had rather than what they hoped for. To mark this, the theatre was renamed on 1 April 1978 to the now familiar Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round and the company’s lease was extended.

During 1979, a £105,000 grant allowed a rehearsal room, costume store, offices, air-conditioning and other improvements to be added to the building which had already seen a small studio space opened in 1978 to supplement the main theatre.

Although its limitations were not so numerous as the Library Theatre, it was still a compromise and over two decades the company worked hard to move the theatre forward and make it as good a venue as it could be; that it became much loved and is still regarded with fondness with many of the Scarborough audience is a testament to what was created in the space.

Which led to that evening twenty-four years ago this week when the theatre went dark for a final time and began its most ambitious move of its 40 year life. Finally, twenty years later than anticipated, the company would have a permanent and purpose-built home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The final performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round on
3 February 1996 with Alan Ayckbourn on stage (© Tony Bartholomew)

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