On 18 June 1973, theatre history was about to be unknowingly made when Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play – Fancy Meeting You – opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
You probably don’t even recognise the name of the play now – but it was accompanied by two other plays and, together, the three of them became rather famous.
To mark the anniversary of Fancy Meeting You, this is an article I wrote for the Stephen Joseph Theatre several years ago in which all is explained and why you’re more familiar with Fancy Meeting You, than you think…
A Trilogy by Simon Murgatroyd
At the climax of the Library Theatre’s 1972 summer season, there were two rather notable occurrances.
The first was the appointment of Alan Ayckbourn as the venue’s permanent Artistic Director – a position he would hold until 2009. The second was a journalist asking him what his next play would be?
Flushed with success from the summer’s production of Absurd Person Singular, Alan rather flippantly – and according to some reminiscences because he could think of nothing better to say – casually mentioned he was thinking of writing a trilogy.
Which he promptly forgot about it and mentioned to no-one else.
Fast forward to the following spring and the journalist published the story; one intriguing element in this is no-one has any record of where the story was first published. Although the Scarborough Evening News – as it was – has frequently claimed credit, no actual evidence of them publishing the article has ever been produced nor held in archive.
Alan, away in London, suddenly received a panicked phone-call from the Library Theatre asking if the report he was writing a trilogy was true. Possibly followed by the question, why didn’t you tell us? Possibly then followed by, what the hell were you thinking?
After an apparently brief consideration, Alan decided it wasn’t such a bad idea after all and began working on the challenge of writing a trilogy.
The original idea had not been completely spontaneous as, the previous year, the Library Theatre’s summer season had actually begun at the recently opened Sheffield Crucible with Alan’s production of David Campton’s Carmilla. Whilst there, Alan had been asked separately if he wanted to write plays for both performance spaces in the building.
Committing to both – although it never went ahead – he had the idea of two plays running at the same time in both spaces with the same cast (of course, this is also arguably the genesis – 27 years before he wrote it – of House & Garden).
Back in London, this developed into the idea of three plays set in the same house over one weekend sharing the same characters.
What was paramount in Alan’s mind during its creation was the plays not be seen as a trilogy; that all three plays could be satisfactorily seen independently of each other. At the time, the Library Theatre was reliant on tourists and Alan felt it was too much to ask three nights of a week’s holiday be spent in the theatre!
As a result, the summer brochure made no mention of a trilogy. Just the titles of three plays which patently had links to one another but which could be seen independently or in any combination.
The plays were written simultaneously over a week in May 1973 with Alan writing each one crosswise (i.e. all the scenes ones after each other, then all of the scenes twos etc) and were called Fancy Meeting You, Make Yourself At Home and Round And Round The Garden. Astonishingly, Alan finished writing two of the plays in one night!
They opened during June at the Library Theatre and were an enormous success – especially once people had realised the benefits of seeing two or more of the plays. The Stage newspaper reported every box office record at the Library Theatre had been broken that season.
The plays were also fondly recalled for the extraordinary occasion when a member of the audience laughed so hard she spat her false teeth out, which her husband came to recover from the box office the next day!
It was only a year later when the trilogy transferred to London that it finally gained a name. You’ve probably guessed by now, but it’s strange to think one of the most famous and acclaimed works written by Alan Ayckbourn did not come to be called by the name we know today until a year after it opened in Scarborough.
The name, of course, The Norman Conquests.
You can find out more about The Norman Conquests at Alan Ayckbourn’s official website by clicking here.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.