Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1970)

We’re moving into a new decade today in the ongoing examination of the history of Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

It’s 1970 and the Library Theatre is still struggling to ensure its future and facing the very familiar challenge finding enough money to fund the company.

Transitions (1970) by Simon Murgatroyd

The dawn of a new decade saw the Library Theatre in Scarborough still very much in transition.

It had been three years since the company’s founder, Stephen Joseph, had died and a year since his perceived protégé, Alan Ayckbourn, had returned to the fold after seven years away.

But the company was still not on a firm footing – and its continued existence was far from certain. It was a theatre with ambitious ideas but financial realities are more pressing concerns.

Yet this was a company which attracted talent – not least Alan Ayckbourn himself! The 1970 company consisted of ten actors – an increase of two from the previous summer – which included Bob Peck, Stephanie Turner and Elisabeth Sladen amongst their number, all of whom would go on to gain national fame on stage and screen.

The 1970 acting company at the Library Theatre (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Against this, finances were stretched practically to their limits. Alan Ayckbourn had been appointed Director of Productions for a second season but he was unpaid with the only compensation being accommodation for the summer season.

Even at this time, Alan was undoubtedly vital to the company’s interests. Not only was he now a famed and nationally recognised playwright with two West End successes behind him, but he also gave a percentage of his royalties to the Library Theatre which was estimated at £35 a week for the theatre. Alan brought both public recognition and vital funding to the company. 

Funding was the key challenge for the company though and the lack of it provided an early disruption to Alan’s plans for 1970. He had initially proposed a five play repertory summer season kicking off with the Scarborough debut of his play Mr Whatnot – which he had premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1963 but had never been seen in Scarborough.

Yet budget constraints meant Mr Whatnot was dropped and the season reduced to just four plays: a modern Commedia Dell’Arte with Leon Katz’ Wife Swapping – Italian Style, a double bill of Edward Albee’s The American Dream and The Sandbox andthe world premieres of Leonard Barras’ The Shy Gasman and Alan Ayckbourn’s The Story So Far… – later revised and retitled Family Circles.

Bob Peck in The Shy Gasman (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It was an eclectic season but would not be as successful as Alan had hoped, even as he pushed on with his desire to continue Stephen Joseph’s legacy of promoting new writing and writers.

This policy was epitomised with the second world premiere of a work by Leonard Barras, who The Guardian described as “a disgracefully neglected comedy writer” in his obituary in 2008. He was typical of the period of Alan Ayckbourn introducing exciting new writers into the company, who were writing plays which went slightly beyond Scarborough audience expectations.

Of course, if you’re pushing against expectation, you must also expect some pushback and Leonard’s plays proved a bit too much for some people as an anonymous letter to the Scarborough Evening News demonstrated.

“Many so called playwrights appear to have minds which are little better than mental cesspools, and if the producer of this play, Mr Ayckbourn, wishes to lower his reputation and standards to purvey their output, that is his concern. Perhaps he can find a market for it in a shady London ‘theatre club.’”

Quite what these ‘shady London theatre clubs’ were and how the author had such intimate knowledge of them is perhaps the more pressing and interesting question which, sadly, will remain forever unanswered. 

Strange missives were not restricted to members of the audience though as one of the few surviving press releases from the company’s first twenty years testifies.

Without the finances for a press officer, publicity and press duties – alongside many other tasks – were handled by the theatre manager Ken Boden, who had a rather… unique approach to writing press releases for the media.

“I am pleased that Alan Ayckbourn has just finished wring it [his latest play, The Story So Far…]. As Theatre Manager I have been worried so it was good news today when he told me the play would be ready for duplicating today.”

Not perhaps the sort of news one would traditionally expect to read from a press release about the latest Ayckbourn play – and perhaps not the type of press release that grabs journalists by the lapels and shouts ‘exciting news story’ to them.

A rarely seen prop photo used in The Story So Far… featuring Heather Stoney, Stephanie Turner & Elisabeth Sladen (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

To be fair to Ken though, he was at the time a man with many, many hats at the Library Theatre. It would be another two years before the Library Theatre gained its first press officer relieving Ken of the duty, when the Arts Council ‘loaned’ the company a trainee administrator, Meryl Robertson.

This pointedly demonstrates the situation the problem the Library Theatre faced at the time. It was a small regional company in a temporary home punching far above its weight in terms of new writing and the calibre of talent it attracted – from writers to actors to directors.

Yet, it was still being run on a shoe-string with the most basic of facilities and was largely dependent on voluntary Front of House help, lacking such basics as a press officer. Ken himself had been theatre manger since the venue opened in 1955, but had only begun receiving a salary in 1969!

Alongside all of this, the company was still searching for a new home given the continued issues with performing in Scarborough Library. The historical issues of the limitations of the facilities, perceived lack of support and being restricted to a summer season had not moved on since Stephen Joseph’s complaints during the early 1960s.

The theatre’s architect, George Alderson, was busy assessing potential venues for the company but this had also generated negative publicity for the company within the town. In 1969, he had located a potential site in The Crescent – a short walk from the Library, central to the town but also an affluential and influential residential area.

One of the residents was Tom Laughton, brother of the actor Charles and the Chairman of Scarborough Theatre Trust. He was also Chairman of The Crescent Residents’ Association, which – as can be imagined – presented an interesting conflict of interests.

Tom Laughton in 1972 (© To be confirmed)

Tom sided with the residents, publicly opposing the plan for the theatre’s move to The Crescent which, naturally, generated much unwanted publicity given Tom was a well-known hotelier and hugely visible figure in the town. Inevitably, he resigned as Chairman of the theatre trust during 1970 as a result of this generating even more negative publicity.  

Unable to catch a break, The Crescent plan was abandoned in favour of a nearby promising site in the Valley Gardens, which the town council promptly declined an application for. The need to find a new home was growing, but the company seemed to be thwarted at every turn.

There was also the reality of whether the theatre could actually afford to move to a new home. A building fund has been launched in 1967 in the wake of Stephen Joseph’s death, yet three years on it had only raised £15,600; hardly enough to build a state-of-the-art permanent new home for the company.

To top all this, by the end of the season there was an increasing tension between Alan and the board. His decision to expand the company from six to eight actors had come with a price and the company had lost £1,300. A loss it could barely afford.

Alan Ayckbourn poses for a Library Theatre publicity photograph in 1970 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Alan had also made aware to the board he would likely not be involved with the 1971 summer season due to his commitments to the Broadway transfer of How The Other Half Loves.

It can not be known for certain, but it would not be surprising if the Board was torn at the news. Alan was not yet a permanent fixture with the company and his headstrong ambitions to move it forward were yet to pay off. 

What the Trust also had to consider though was they were dependent on the publicity and reputation Alan brought as well as the royalties his West End plays generated for the Library Theatre.

Decisions would need to be made if the company was going to survive the turbulent years ahead and move forward. Yet as the Library Theatre approached 1971 it was without their key asset, Alan Ayckbourn, in situ.

These articles were first published in the Circular – the e-publication for the SJT Circle supporters’ organisation. During these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle is a great way of helping to support the theatre and further details can be found here.

You can find out more about the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. All images are copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust (unless noted). Please do not reproduce either the article or images without permission of the copyright holder.

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