With the debut of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, Anno Domino, on Monday as an online audio stream, it will provide an opportunity for many people to hear Alan act for the first time.
Yet this is not a new experience for Alan. He began his professional theatre career as an actor and, from 1957 to 1964, was predominantly known as an actor. Gradually, as he began to move into writing and directing, he realised that whilst these skills were improving, his acting was not.
“For a time writing was only a means of providing myself with parts. Then I began to realise that other actors were better than me. I assessed my abilities as an actor in time and moved into full-time writing and directing.” (Alan Ayckbourn)
This led, in 1964, to the decision to retire from professional acting. That and his experiences with a stage-manager who later, thankfully, found his skills were considerably better served as an exceptionally successful theatre producer.
But more on that anon…
But to set the stage for Alan’s return to acting. Alan left school in 1955 at the age of 16 and within three days – thanks to the influence and connections of one of his teachers, Edgar Matthews – he was working at the Edinburgh Festival for the theatre impresario Sir Donald Wolfit.
Following that, Alan worked at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, Leatherhead Theatre Club, Oxford Playhouse and, of course, Scarborough’s Library Theatre (now the Stephen Joseph Theatre). In all these venues, he acted (alongside stage-managing, lighting, teching and, later, writing and directing).
By the time, he retired from acting in 1964, Alan was reckoned to be one of the country’s most experienced in-the-round acting, although even he admits that he wasn’t necessarily the finest actor in the world: “It was time to get out – I was spoiling the plays.”
In 1964, Alan had left the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent – where he had been working as writer, director and actor since 1962 – when his play Mr Whatnot was optioned for the West End. His final acting role was both unexpected and less than a triumph.
During the previous year, he had appeared in a production of William Gibson’s two-hander, Two For The Seesaw, performing opposite Heather Stoney – now his wife and who he is performing opposite again in Anno Domino.
During 1964, the play was set for a revival at Rotherham’s Civic Theatre, directed by Geoffrey Staines. Alan recalls the two actors contracted to be performing dropped out late in the day and he and Heather were contacted by Spotlight due to their recent experience with the piece.
And for just why this production was the final nail in the acting coffin for Alan and why Bill Kenwright – of all people – is known more for producing than stage-managing, we turn to Paul Allen’s biography of Alan Ayckbourn, Grinning At The Edge.
“They [Alan & Heather] didn’t know the theatre and there was no dress rehearsal. That Monday night they reached the point where Alan’s disillusioned New York lawyer – looking rather like an elongated Frank Sinatra with his hat perched on the back of his head – had been invited home by Heather’s Jewish 30-something dancer.
“She went off-stage to fix some food while he chatted away in the living-room. When Heather failed to reappear at the appointed time, Alan gamely ad-libbed but got more and more distracted replies from off-stage until he decided to ask if she needed any help back there.
“Yes, she jolly well did. The props – plates, stage food, cutlery and so on – hadn’t been unpacked when they arrived at the theatre and she was struggling to find them for herself.
“Alan decided there and then that the rewards of acting were not enough to compensate for that kind of hassle. The young ASM on the production was apologetic. Had there been a bit of a problem? He would sort it out. In the meantime he thought they had both been brilliant. It was a privilege to be working with them. His name was Bill Kenwright, subsequently the busiest commercial producer in Britain.”
And as Ayckbourn fans will probably know, Kenwright has worked extensively with Alan subsequently producing many West End and touring productions of Alan’s plays – including the recent UK tour of Ten Times Table which fortuitously came to a close just before the theatre lockdown.
It was hardly an auspicious end to Alan’s acting career – but then he was on the verge of writing his transformative play Relatively Speaking and never looked back.
Which is why Anno Domino is such a surprise. Given the extraordinary circumstances we all find ourselves in, Alan decided to dust off his acting shoes and will play all four male roles opposite Heather Stoney, playing all four female roles, in the SJT’s exclusive audio-stream of his new play Anno Domino.
So for all of us who never got the opportunity to see Alan act, we can at least hear him acting whilst being directed by himself in a play he wrote!
Anno Domino will be available to stream from the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s website (www.sjt.uk.com) from noon on Monday 25 May until noon on 25 June 2020.