Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1956)

Continuing our look into the history of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre through significant events, plays and people, we move forward to its second year of existence, 1956.

To set the scene, the SJT was founded by Stephen Joseph as the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955 with the aim of promoting new theatre forms (specifically theatre-in-the-round) and new writing by new playwrights. During the first summer season, four new plays were premiered – notably three were written by female writers.

1956: Wuthering Heights by Simon Murgatroyd

Having navigated the pitfalls of its inaugural season and made only a small loss, its founder – Stephen Joseph – decided the Library Theatre was successful enough to launch a second season in Scarborough during the summer of 1956.

This built upon the previous year with five world premiere productions from a season of six plays. Like the previous season, there was a strong showing of female writers with two of the five new plays written by women.

John Rees & Shirley Jacobs in a publicity shot for Jurneman Winch’s Wuthering Heights
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

One of these writers was Jurneman Winch, a pseudonym for the writer Joan Winch. Joan had written Turn Right At The Crossroads for the first season and for 1956, she attempted the challenge of adaptingEmily Brontë’s famed novel Wuthering Heights for the stage.

Joan is the only female writer at the Library Theatre to employ a male pseudonym and to this day, it’s not entirely clear why. It was not uncommon for women to write under pseudonyms at this time possibly due to prejudice against female writing for the stage. However, In the case of the Library Theatre, Stephen Joseph was just proud to promote new writing, whoever might have written it.

Although Wuthering Heights marked the last of Joan’s plays for the Library Theatre, it was judged a great success and was a box office hit. This can also be seen when, in 1960, Stephen Joseph decided to revive it as one of two notable plays from the company’s first five years with Alan Ayckbourn playing Heathcliff (at this point, Alan was still aiming to be a professional actor despite having written two successful plays bye this point).

Alan Ayckbourn & Hazel Anne Lee in the 1960 revival of Wuthering Heights
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Of the original 1956 production, The Stage particularly praised Joan’s writing – although the writer assumed Jurneman was a man – noting the play “is shot through with his striking dialogue” and “here is, one feels, a playwright of decided promise.” The reviews also tended to fixate on the advantages and disadvantages of theatre-in-the-round – it still being a novelty as this extract from the Yorkshire Post demonstrates.

An extract from Desmond Pratt’s review of Wuthering Heights for the Yorkshire Post
(© JPI Media Publishing Ltd)

Notably, it was also the first Studio Theatre Ltd production to have ‘location’ publicity shots taken outside of the rehearsal room or the Library Theatre itself. A photo-shoot was arranged on the North Yorkshire Moors with the director, Stephen Joseph, and the play’s Heathcliff and Cathy; John Rees & Shirley Jacobs.

A notable shot of Stephen ‘directing’ the actors on the moors was published in the Yorkshire Evening Post alongside the unlikely note: “To get the atmosphere for their presentation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the cast has been holding rehearsals on the moors near Scarborough.”

Stephen Joseph ‘directing’ Shirley Jacobs & John Rees in a publicity shot for Wuthering Heights
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It seems more likely ‘publicity stunt’ rather than ‘rehearsals’ would be closer to the truth!

Other photos from the Moors shoot (such as the one found on the top of the page) were probably used for publicity purposes in the foyer of the Library Theatre during the summer season.

This production of Wuthering Heights not only played during the 1956 summer season at Scarborough, but also toured to London for a single performance with the Studio Theatre Club. During the first three years of the Library Theatre’s existence, Stephen Joseph was still hoping to find a permanent home for the company in London and regularly took productions which had been presented in Scarborough alongside other work to the capitol in the hope of generating interest in his project.

These performances would take place on a Sunday with the company travelling to London following the week’s final performance in Scarborough on the Saturday night, setting up a theatre-in-the-round space, performing the play and striking the space on the Sunday, before returning on the same day to Scarborough to prepare for the first of the new week’s performance on the Monday night!

A production shot from the world premiere of Wuthering Heights
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The Studio Theatre Club performances took place at the Mahatma Gandhi Assembly Rooms in Fitzroy Square and – as we will soon discover – this is where Alan Ayckbourn first saw the Studio Theatre Company and experienced theatre-in-the-round for the first time during 1957.

Interestingly, Joan’s play Turn Right At The Crossroads – which was part of the Library Theatre’s inaugural season – was the first of the Studio Theatre Club productions when they were launched on 1 September 1955. Stephen must have had great faith in both Joan and her writing by picking her play to showcase his company and theatre.

Sadly, there is no record of whether Joan continued writing after her experiences at the Library Theatre. Although correspondence survives to indicate she and Stephen stayed in touch, there is no record of any more plays and in one letter, she notes how she has completely dried up of ideas.

Despite this, Joan undoubtedly made her mark as one the founding playwrights of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. All images are copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust (unless noted). Please do not reproduce either the article or images without permission of the copyright holder.

These articles were first published in the Circular – the e-publication for the SJT Circle supporters’ organisation. During these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle is a great way of helping to support the theatre and further details can be found here.

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