Standing Room Only – The First Significant Ayckbourn Play?

Slightly later than intended, today’s blog reproduces a talk I gave last year for the first ever public performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s fourth play, Standing Room Only, since 1966.

The rehearsed reading was presented by Dick & Lottie theatre company at The Square Chapel Theatre, Halifax – which sadly went into administration during March soon after the theatre lockdown – on 4 July 2019 to mark both Alan Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday and the 15th anniversary of the founding of Dick & Lottie.

I had intended to publish this on the first anniversary of the event, but better late than never! The talk offered both an introduction to the play, first seen in 1961, as well as arguing that it should be considered the most significant of Alan Ayckbourn’s early plays, laying the groundwork for much of which was to follow.

Standing Room Only by Simon Murgatroyd

Tonight we’re celebrating the playwright Alan Ayckbourn with a unique performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s fourth play, Standing Room Only. It is being performed for the first time since 1966 and tomorrow it will go back into the archive and is unlikely to be performed again during our lifetimes.

My job is to introduce the play and also make the case that Standing Room Only is a highly significant play and, arguably, the earliest pivotal play in his play canon.

Standing Room Only was written in 1961 and was a very rare instance of Alan writing a play to someone else’s suggestion. In this case, it was his most influential mentor, the British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph. He had been reading about overpopulation and asked Alan to write a play about the subject set in the year 2010, by which time the population on Earth had grown so large, we’d had to colonise Venus, which was now also on the verge of overpopulation.

Alan thought this all a bit unlikely, so he moved the plot from Venus to Shaftesbury Avenue – arguably both equally inhospitable locations in our solar system – and wrote a play about over-population, gridlock, road-rage and a dystopian Government lying to the populace.

Obviously, none of this came true…

The poster for Dick & Lottie’s 2019 production of Standing Room Only (© Richard McArtney)

The play is, arguably, the first time Alan’s authentic voice as a writer can be heard. The concept may have come from Stephen Joseph, but the idea, plot and dialogue are completely Alan’s own. We’ve moved away from the traditional farce of his first two plays – The Square Cat and Love After All – to a satire about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, something which recurs frequently in Alan’s writing.

It is also his first attempt at speculative fiction – or science fiction. Alan as a young man was a voracious reader of the ‘golden age’ of the genre from writers such as Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and they were a great influence to him. From them he learnt the great lesson that the best speculative fiction is not actually about tomorrow but about the issues of today. It would be more than 25 years before he returned to the genre with Henceforward…, but as fans of the playwright will know, this is a particularly important strand in his canon given they are the plays where he has most deeply explored the act of creativity and what it is to be human.

The play opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961 directed by Stephen Joseph with Alan in the cast – at the time, his focus was still on becoming an actor first and foremost. The production was a tremendous success and extra performances were scheduled for the end of the season.

It also had a very good review in The Stage – and thereby hangs a tale. For The Stage review led directly to the West End impresario Peter Bridge optioning the play for London – marking the first time one of Alan’s plays had been optioned for the West End.

The world premiere production of Standing Room Only at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961 (© Haydonning Ltd)

Yet The Stage review was written by Joan Macalpine. Joan was not a regular critic for The Stage. In fact she wasn’t a critic at all. She was a stage manager. A stage manager for the Library Theatre, more specifically for Standing Room Only. When Peter Bridge saw the headline, ‘who will drive this bus into Shaftesbury Avenue?’, he decided he would. Despite the fact the review was, to use today’s vernacular, ‘fake news’.

Bridge shopped the play around various big-ish names – which largely seem to be stars from the Carry On… films. Each time someone showed interest, Bridge asked Alan to alter the script accordingly to suit that actor. This eventually degenerated into Bridge suggesting someone and Alan just changing the character description to match, which can’t have been terribly convincing to those reading it. Sid James thought there should be more ‘rudes’ in the play, so, obviously, Bridge asked for more swearing from Alan.

The final version of the much re-written play introduced a new character called Ellie and there’s a strong case that it was written to accommodate interest by Hattie Jacques. But Alan says he can’t remember this.

Or just chooses not to.

Alan Ayckbourn’s 1963 revival of Standing Room Only at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent (© Haydonning Ltd)

Despite all this effort, the show wasn’t produced in the West End and Alan decided he was not a fan of rewrites – he rarely rewrites anything once the first draft is complete. He also realised he wasn’t a great a fan of the West End, despite all the success he subsequently found there. His distaste for the West End’s reliance on the ‘star’ system perhaps helps to explain why he’s such a committed regionalist.

Despite the disappointment regarding Standing Room Only, Peter Bridge would eventually make good however and in 1965 optioned Alan’s play Meet My Father. He told Alan ‘The title’s awfully provincial darling, can’t you change it?” Alan did and in 1967, Relatively Speaking opened in the West End – I think we can all agree that Alan had a modest success with that!

After all this, the much revised Standing Room Only did find a new home when Stephen Joseph founded the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in 1962. This was the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round venue – Scarborough was home to the UK’s first professional in-the-round company. Alan joined Stephen in founding the Victoria as actor, writer and director and during the first season, Standing Room Only was revived. Significantly, this marked the first time Alan would direct one of his own plays. That Christmas he would also direct the first premiere of one of his works and subsequently would direct all but one of the world premieres of his plays.

The production featured Heather Stoney in the role of Ellie and, as anyone familiar with Alan’s life will know, Heather is now Lady Ayckbourn. It also became the first play to be attributed to Alan Ayckbourn. Previously all of Alan’s plays had been written under the pseudonym Roland Allen – this had been to distance the actor from the writer and also to acknowledge his first play had been a collaboration between himself, Alan, and his first wife Christine Roland. Standing Room Only was the last play to be produced under the pseudonym, but when he revived it, it was credited to Alan Ayckbourn and is thus regarded as the first Ayckbourn play.

The company of Dick & Lottie’s 2019 rehearsed reading of Standing Room Only (© Richard McArtney)

Standing Room Only then became the first of Alan’s plays to be optioned for television when ITV picked it up for Armchair Theatre. Sadly, it was never made for reasons unknown – probably budget – and Alan would have to wait until 1969 for the first television adaptation of one of his plays.

The play’s final performance took place in 1966 at the British Council’s London Overseas Student Centre as a showcase for British drama and it again featured Heather Stoney.

And that was that. Alan withdrew most of his early work during the late 1960s with Standing Room Only among them. Six of his first eight plays were withdrawn and have never been performed since nor have they been published nor made easily accessible. Until this performance, none of these withdrawn plays have been performed in their entirety since 1967.

And perhaps now you can appreciate why I feel Standing Room Only is so significant. It’s the first credited Ayckbourn play and the first time we get a sense of the writer who will emerge over the decades to come. It’s the first play to be picked up for the West End – subsequently 39 of his plays have gone into the West End. It’s the first of his plays to be picked up for television – more than 25 of his plays have been adapted for the big or small screen since – and it marked the first time he would direct one of his own plays. Since then, he’s directed upwards of 150 productions of just his own work and has always considered himself more a director than a writer.

So, all told, I believe there’s a pretty strong case that Standing Room Only is an important work.

And, if I may say so, I think it’s also pretty good play for any 22 year old’s fourth full-length produced work!

But enough of this standing around, there’s a bus waiting to be caught own Shaftesbury Avenue and we’re lucky enough to be the only passengers to be invited on this particular journey.

Welcome to Standing Room Only.

You can find out more about Standing Room Only 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.

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