Failing To Take Flight: Alan Ayckbourn’s The Sparrow

On 13 July 1967, Alan Ayckbourn’s little-known play The Sparrow premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

It is the play which followed Relatively Speaking and preceded How The Other Half Loves, yet it has only ever been performed once and is one of the least known works in the Ayckbourn canon.

To mark its anniversary, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist Simon Murgatroyd goes behind the scenes of the play which got away despite two would-be acting legends performing in the original production.

Failing To Take Flight: The Sparrow by Simon Murgatroyd

The Sparrow is a play which failed to take flight when it premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1967 and is now all but forgotten.

Yet it was the successor to Relatively Speaking, which had opened to tremendous fanfare in the West End just four months previously. Alan was a rising star of theatre – and yet The Sparrow would run for just three weeks and would never be performed again. It stands in direct contrast to the reception given to its immediate predecessor Relatively Speaking and its successor How The Other Half Loves. What happened?

Pamela Craig & John Nettles in The Sparrow (© Haydonning Ltd)

This isn’t a play which Alan Ayckbourn has disowned. Compared to his views on some of his earliest writing, he has shown a fondness for The Sparrow, perhaps as a result of the fact he views it as a play which was ignored not for what it was, but for what it was not.

At the time, Alan Ayckbourn was working for the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer, based in Leeds. He had left theatre for the BBC after the mauling his first West End transfer, Mr Whatnot, received in 1964. Although Relatively Speaking was a recent success in the West End, Alan was not yet secure enough to leave the safe and well-paid sanctuary of the BBC.

However, the Library Theatre was not in such a comfortable position. Alan’s mentor, Stephen Joseph, was terminally ill with cancer and the Library Theatre was struggling to survive without the guiding hand of its founder and Artistic Director. Stephen had closed the Library Theatre at the end of the 1965 season – apparently permanently. However, professional productions had resumed in 1967, but only four plays – including The Sparrow – were produced and finances for the company were shaky.

Later in the same year, the company would also feel the loss of its extraordinary founder when, during October, Stephen Joseph succumbed to his cancer. The company lacked a figure-head and a leader was needed.

The first steps to this were taken when Alan was commissioned to write The Sparrow for the 1967 summer season. Alan had historically been a popular draw for the company and this marked the first time he would direct one of his own plays at the Library Theatre; he would subsequently be appointed Artistic Director of the company in 1972.

Pamela Craig, Heather Stoney & Robert Powell in The Sparrow (© Haydonning Ltd)

The play was originally entitled The Silver Collection and this title featured in early discussions about the summer programme and in the earliest advertising for the season. However, Alan disliked the title and it was later altered to The Sparrow; although in a programme note from 1968, Alan expressed dissatisfaction with this title too – obviously hoping there was still a future for the play then.

“The girl’s role in Relatively Speaking is the least fun to do and, probably out of guilt, I tried to remedy this by writing a wonderful vehicle for a girl in my next one, The Sparrow. Pamela Craig was marvellous as Evie and the play was a great Scarborough success.” – Alan Ayckbourn

The original – and only – production was notable for featuring two actors who would go on to considerable success on stage and screen, in the shape of Robert Powell and John Nettles. Alan had worked with Robert Powell previously at both the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent and on BBC Radio; three years later he would find fame in the BBC drama Doomwatch before infamously being cast in the titular role of Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli. The Sparrow, meanwhile, marked only John Nettles’ second professional acting role following Alan Plater’s Hop, Step and Jump at the Library Theatre earlier in the season. John would become renowned for his work on television shows such as Bergarac and Midsomer Murders as well as for his work at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

The Sparrow was performed for just three weeks during the summer repertory and the Scarborough Evening News noted the West End producer Peter Bridge visited the show with The Stage later reporting he had taken an option on the play intent on producing it in the West End.

Unfortunately, the play never transferred and when negotiations began for Alan’s subsequent play How The Other Half Loves, there were clear signs of tension between and Alan and Peter Bridge due to the latter not bringing either The Sparrow or an earlier play Standing Room Only to the London stage.

Programme detail from the world premiere of The Sparrow (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

In later years, Alan would take exception with Bridge for not having the courage to admit that he wasn’t interested in The Sparrow because he wanted another play in the mould of Relatively Speaking, which The Sparrow certainly wasn’t. Bridge’s excuse was the play was too similar to Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack – as Alan pointed out, the only similarity between the plays is both share a female lead. When Bridge also said he had difficulty casting it with a suitable young cast, Alan was wise enough to realise this translated as Bridge couldn’t find a bankable star and was instead intending to play it safe and wait for the next Relatively Speaking.

Which did come with How The Other Half Loves in 1969, but this play also marked the final time Peter Bridge would ever take an Ayckbourn play into the West End.

“I suppose every writer who writes a hit play has ghost chasing him. If people like your play you are, after all, faced with a decision. You can either write the same play again under a different title and probably enjoy at least three-quarter of your previous success over again. Or you can keep faith with yourself and try to do something different.”Alan Ayckbourn

Despite Peter Bridge’s lack of enthusiasm for the play, the critical reception was unanimously positive with the Daily Mail expecting it would join Relatively Speaking in the West End within a year and favourable comparisons being made in other reviews to both the playwrights Peter Shaffer and Harold Pinter. The play did exceptionally well in Scarborough and was part of a record-breaking summer season for the Library Theatre, yet despite this – and an unrealised plan to revive the play in 1971 at Salisbury Playhouse directed by Caroline Smith –  The Sparrow has never been produced since.

The lack of a West End transfer surely hurt the play’s prospects but this was perhaps a more difficult play to sell than Relatively Speaking. Alan says he was inspired by Harold Pinter when writing it – Alan had been directed by Pinter as a an actor in 1958 and remained friends with the playwright – although it is not a Pinter-esque play. Nor is it reflective of anything written by Alan Ayckbourn during this period being a social drama which verges more on light comedy than dark menace. It centres on bus-driver, Ed and his relationship with Evie, who he brings back home one evening. The burgeoning relationship is put to the test though by Ed’s friend Tony, who employs Evie in a non-existent business as a means of taking revenge on Ed for having a one night stand with his wife, Julie.

John Nettles, Pamela Craig & Robert Powell in The Sparrow (© Haydonning Ltd)

Whilst an interesting rather than outstanding play, it is worth noting that many of Alan’s dominant themes are clearly on display and it offers a glimpse of a darker edge to Ayckbourn’s writing which would not appear again for several years to come.

“I wrote a very good Pinter play years ago. Nobody wanted to do it because Pinter was currently writing them better, but it taught me a lot about playwriting and the use Pinter made of language or the lack of it.” – Alan Ayckbourn

In contrast to the favourable reviews, it did not impress the Arts Council of Great Britain to which the play had been submitted to qualify for new writing funding. The various script-readers are unenthusiastic and variously describe the play as “a simple tale, of one basic situation. It is told with competent, unthrilling dialogue, but it doesn‘t get us anywhere”, “It’s only a slight little comedy, but it has a touch of quality. Dialogue and characterisation ring absolutely true” and “the author finishes the play with no finish. He literally leaves us exactly where we came in with the air of having had enough of it himself – so that‘s that.”

Alan has said in subsequent years, he wonders how The Sparrow would have developed as a play had it been given more opportunity, but it was soon forgotten amidst the continued success of the West End production of Relatively Speaking that year and the subsequent astonishing success of the plays which followed it.

“Obviously I don’t believe, in retrospect, that it’s as good a play as Relatively Speaking, but it’s only had three weeks in its life, those three weeks at Scarborough. It’s probably worth a little more than that.” – Alan Ayckbourn

Sadly, The Sparrow was the play that never took wing.

You can find out more about The Sparrow at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and © Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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