Fifteen years ago today, Alan Ayckbourn had – arguably – his greatest success in New York City.
At the 59E59 Theatres, his play Private Fears in Public Places opened on 9 June 2005 and became one of the most surprising successes of his long career. It also forged a relationship – which thrives to this day – between the 59E59 and Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
To mark the anniversary, the blog looks back 15 years to what was perceived as a huge risk for both the SJT and Alan Ayckbourn and how it became a triumph.
Private Fears in Manhattan Theatre by Simon Murgatroyd
New York is, inarguably, the city which made Private Fears In Public Places.
The play’s place as one of the most significant of Alan Ayckbourn’s works of this century can be traced directly to its reception in the city during 2005 and the adroit critical and public recognition of the piece.
Yet, it had barely made a impact when it premiered at the playwright’s home venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT) in Scarborough, during 2004. Since 1957 the playwright has been based in this small coastal town in North Yorkshire where he has complete control over his work. To see a play in Scarborough, directed by the playwright, is to see an Ayckbourn play as intended: in-the-round and performed by an ensemble company.
Private Fears In Public Places was one of two world premieres staged during the summer 2004 season at the SJT alongside Drowning On Dry Land; the playwright enjoyed working with the latter’s company so much, he wrote a new play on spec and having presented the idea to the company, it was rushed into the late summer schedule.
It was a play unlike any which had preceded it.
Consisting of 54 short scenes which seamlessly segue into the next without an interval, the playwright described Private Fears In Public Places as more akin to a movie in structure than a play. Its theme was also something of a left turn for the playwright, exploring the lonely lives and troubled loves of the 30-something generation in London. True, at its heart, it contains the themes and ideas which have dominated Ayckbourn’s writing for more than six decades: relationships, the ways disparate lives interweave and our inability to communicate with each other, all alongside the humour and darkness which perpetuates many of his most successful plays.
Yet there was more to Private Fears In Public Places than this: a melancholy leavened with humour recognising an alienated society and generation desperate to make meaningful human connections.
It was also, quite clearly, unexpected.
Despite a career of pushing the envelope with his writing and constantly moving into new territory, the British critics almost as a whole were dismissive of the piece as a failed experiment and not what one would expect of the playwright.
Perhaps familiarity had bred contempt or perhaps because Ayckbourn had recently given up on London and refused to let his new work be produced in the West End, there was now a dismissive attitude to his writing which ignored his constant experimentations with structure and form.
Whatever the case, the play was essentially passed off as mediocre Ayckbourn and received less notice than Drowning On Dry Land; a piece – which in hindsight – even the playwright recognises is a middling work and certainly not in the same league as Private Fears In Public Places.
The work was, however, well-received by audiences and the SJT made the decision to revive it the following year to spearhead a risky new venture.
The theatre had been in negotiation with the 59E59 Theaters in New York to bring an Ayckbourn production over as part of the fledgling Brits Off Broadway festival. The 59E59 had opened in 2004 with the mission of bringing new work – both homegrown and international – into New York. One aspect of this was the Brits Off Broadway festival, highlighting exciting new work from across the Atlantic.
A decision was made to revive Private Fears In Public Places in Scarborough, transfer it for two weeks to London’s then only permanent in-the-round space, the Orange Tree, before heading to New York for a month.
It was nothing but a huge risk for the SJT. Much of British regional theatre is – nominally – subsidised by the UK Government and frequently in a precarious financial situation (none more so than the situation today, when the future of theatres not only in the UK but worldwide looks alarmingly bleak). To tour a company to North America would mean achieving houses of no less than 58% just to break even. A significant box office loss could have significant ramifications for the SJT.
The play transferred to the Orange Tree and was, again, largely ignored by the critics. However, The Guardian’s Michael Billington recognised this was a play not so easily dismissed, describing it as ‘quintessentially theatrical in its Chekhovian ability to wring laughter out of quiet desperation.’
It was a prescient review considering what was to follow.
It should be noted that by this stage in his career, Alan Ayckbourn had virtually no presence as such in New York – even throughout North America. Admittedly, he was known and his work performed, but he had not enjoyed anywhere near the level of success he had in the UK and London’s West End. His most recent venture on Broadway had been the musical By Jeeves with Andrew Lloyd Webber, which opened in the wake of 9/11 in October 2001 and closed three months later.
His most successful period in New York had been in the early ‘70s when Absurd Person Singular had become one of the longest running comedies on Broadway and which, at one point, ran in tandem with The Norman Conquests trilogy; Ayckbourn being the first playwright to have four plays running concurrently on the Great White Way.
As such, there were no expectations for Private Fears In Public Places and no names to carry it. The company was, with a couple of alterations, essentially the same ensemble which had presented the play in 2004 in Scarborough – no star names just the actors Alan Ayckbourn wanted for the roles and believed were right for the company: Melanie Gutteridge, Paul Kemp, Adrian McLoughlin, Alexandra Mathie, Sarah Moyle and Paul Thornley.
Private Fears In Private Places opened in Theater A at the 59E59 on 9 June and box office receipts were healthy if not spectacular. All eyes were on 14 June when the play officially opened to the critics.
A tip-off to the theatre after the press evening was barely believable, but advised something special was about to happen and for the box office to be prepared.
The first major review appeared online that evening at 8pm courtesy of Variety which described the play as “a delicately crafted work that shows a master’s skill in its graceful Chekhovian movement between comedy and melancholy.”
This was just the start.
As has always been the case, the big test was the New York Times and Charles Isherwood had come to review the play. His response was above and beyond all expectations and ranks as one of the finest reviews the playwright has ever received.
“It is rueful, funny, touching and altogether wonderful. It runs only through July 3, which would break my heart if Sir Alan and his fine company hadn’t already done the job.”
The superlative review praised the play, the playwright, the production and the acting company. It would not be alone. As more reviews came in, the message was the same. This was a must-see play with several articles comparing it and the company to the best on Broadway.
It was a complete validation and, inevitably, sales soared. It was reported that several very famous names were turned away by the box office as it became one of the hottest tickets in towns – perhaps helped by the intimacy of the auditorium which had also so appealed to the playwright!
The New York critics and audiences had found the heart of the play and recognised its many qualities which had eluded the British critics. There is a legitimate argument that there were fewer preconceptions in the USA of Alan’s work which led to a more objective assessment of the play; in the UK, Alan has long had to cope with frequent misconceptions regarding his writing – he’s not a farceur no matter what anyone writes! – and his popularity and productivity has, at times, counted against him.
The production had a phenomenally successful run in New York and broke box office records at the 59E59. The SJT’s gamble had paid off and Alan realised he had gained a level of appreciation he had never previously known in New York. The production featured frequently in end-of-the-year ‘Best Of’ lists.
The success of the partnership with the 59E59 led to frequent future collaborations with the Scarborough company travelling over every couple of years; the most recent being in 2017 when A Brief History Of Women ran for a month at the venue. Subsequent to its success in New York, there has been a quiet re-evaluation of Private Fears In Public Places in the UK, although it has still not received the recognition it arguably deserves.
It’s reputation was done no harm either by a sympathetic film adaptation by the French auteur Alain Resnais in 2006 which won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival; it remains – certainly to the playwright and this author’s minds – the finest screen adaptation of Ayckbourn’s work yet.
Alan has always been grateful for the reception Private Fears In Public Places received in New York and that – after five decades – he finally found success and recognition in the city; particularly gratifying as it was with his own production and company from Scarborough.
Since then, it’s hard not to argue that when he knows a new play will transfer to New York, that Alan doesn’t up his game and produce frequently more challenging work; structurally My Wonderful Day, Arrivals & Departures and A Brief History Of Women all have far more in common with Private Fears In Public Places than they do with the rest of his canon and all were written with the knowledge they would be coming to the 59E59.
The success of Private Fears In Public Places was also a much needed fillip for the playwright. Having had a traumatic experience in London’s West End with his Damsels In Distress trilogy in 2002 – which led to him putting a moratorium on any of his new plays being produced in the West End – Alan found recognition and appreciation of his writing across the Atlantic in New York. In a sense, New York replaced London as the place where Alan wanted his works to have their ‘big’ premiere after Scarborough and the reception he and his work have received since has more than validated this view.
So what was perceived as a huge risk for all concerned turned out, instead, to be a triumph. Without New York, Private Fears In Public Places would never have been recognised and found its place as such a significant Ayckbourn work.
You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places at his official website by clicking here.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Photographs copyright of attributed source. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.