Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1972)

It’s n important year in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre as the blog continues its exploration of key events and figures in the history of the Scarborough-based company.

1972 was hugely significant for the Stephen Joseph Theatre as it saw Alan Ayckbourn take on the role of Artistic Director, guiding the SJT’s course over the next 37 years.

But before we look at this pivotal moment, we’re going to take a small diversion to mark an otherwise unrecognised event that took place in the same year. As one of the company’s playwright’s rose to prominence, so another stepped away.

1972: End Of An Era by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1972, an era passed unmarked and unnoticed at the Library Theatre with a final production written by one of the most significant early figures in the company’s history.

The summer season opened with the world premiere of Carmilla by David Campton; it would mark the final play to be staged to this day by the company by its first resident playwright.

First resident playwright? Contrary to popular opinion, the company’s first resident playwright was not Alan Ayckbourn. By the time, Alan wrote his first play for the company in 1959, David had had eight plays produced at the Library Theatre. For the first decade of the company’s existence, David was seen by the theatre’s founder and Artistic Director Stephen Joseph as his great playwriting hope.

David Campton (sitting) with the company of Four Minute Warning in 1960 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

David was involved with the Library Theatre from its inception as he was one of the four playwrights chosen by Stephen to be showcased during the inaugural season in 1955. Unusually for theatres during the period, he was also the only male playwright in the first season alongside three female writers chosen by Stephen.

Alone of those playwrights however, he was constantly produced throughout Stephen Joseph’s tenure at the Library Theatre and would also go on to co-manage the company for several years. He was a close friend of Stephen Joseph and would passionately advocate the theatre pioneer for many years after his death.

Between 1955 and 1965, Stephen Joseph directed 18 of David’s plays at the Library Theatre with at least one production every year over the eleventh years. Not only was David the company’s first resident playwright but his work was also showcased by Stephen when the company toured, most notably with a two week run of The Lunatic View in London during December 1957.

In comparison, the second most prolific playwright of the period was Alan Ayckbourn, who joined the company in 1957 and by 1965 had had five of his plays produced at the Library Theatre

David first came to Stephen’s attention at a playwriting course during the early 1950s. Keen to encourage a promising new writer, Stephen continued to work with David and in 1955 invited him to write a play for his new venture, the UK’s first professional in-the-round company based at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.

One of Stephen Joseph’s stated intentions for this new company was to encourage new plays by new playwrights and the inaugural season was all new work. David’s play, Dragons Are Dangerous, marked the start of a long association with the company and an even longer career as a successful playwright; he would go on to write more than 100 one act plays and twenty full-length plays.

A scene from David Campton’s first play at the Library Theatre, Dragons Are Dangerous (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

David and Stephen’s strong friendship had a profound impact on David’s writing with Stephen encouraging him to tackle ideas and themes of interest to them both, which would later be firmly associated with the ‘Comedy of Menace’ genre of the period.

This writing led to favourable comparisons with Harold Pinter and Stephen firmly believed David had the potential to be the first breakout writer from the Library Theatre.

Of course, this plaudit belongs to Alan Ayckbourn, but David’s plays were noticed and well- received by such influential critics as John Russell Taylor, who wrote about David in his seminal book on British theatre during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Anger And After.

In an article in The Times in 1961, he argued the playwright’s lack of recognition was due entirely to geography: “Clearly it is Mr Campton’s misfortune that he lives in the North, and has been produced primarily by a northern company, since up to now it has prevented him from receiving the attention he should have.”

Taylor would also note of David that “his voice is individual, and deserves to be heard.” Sadly, certainly within Scarborough, his voice would be eclipsed by another playwright. Having joined the company in 1957, Alan Ayckbourn began writing in 1959 and his and David’s work often dominated the schedule at the Library Theatre between 1959 and 1962, as Alan noted: “Sometimes our plays literally alternated in repertoire for months on end – his blend of light comedies and ‘comedies of menace’ with my own early frenetic farces.”

David Campton (right) with Dona Martyn & William Elmhirst in the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

A friendly rivalry also developed between the two with, as Alan explains, the challenge being to create the most awkward role possible as both men also acted in the company.

“It soon became matter of honour to try and write each other the ultimately unplayable, unrewarding acting role – preferably as humiliating and physically uncomfortable as possible. We also became adroit at creating for each other unrecognisable or oft repeated cue lines combined with long tortuous speeches with impossible thought changes.”

The winner of this ‘competition’ was, Alan admits, David with a notorious role in his 1961 one act play, Little Brother, Little Sister in which Alan played, well, best to let him explain.

“Probably the best / worst role he [David] ever wrote for me, though, was a homicidal, 108 year old female cook / nanny trapped in a nuclear bomb shelter with two young protégés (the cook had long ago served up their parents for dinner). The character talked incessantly in a series of totally un-learnable non-sequiturs that made Beckett seem straightforward by comparison. I wore a ton of padding including foam rubber legs the size of tree trunks, an unyielding starched uniform, an off the peg grey wig and a false nose that regularly dropped off as the perspiration flowed down my mottled yellow make-up.”

Alan Ayckbourn (left) as a homicidal, cannibal nanny in Little Brother, Little Sister (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Indeed, it wasn’t just Alan who ended up in unusual roles. In 1959, David adapted Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein for the stage and Stephen Joseph was cast as the monster! David himself acted in 23 plays including the world premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s first two plays, The Square Cat and Love After All as well as the company’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, directed by the famed playwright himself.

David Campton (right) with Harold Pinter during 1959 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But David was, first and foremost, a writer and one whom Stephen chose to champion. He directed all of David’s plays and even took several of them to London as part of the Studio Theatre’s Sunday Club, which tried to promote both theatre-in-the-round and new writing.

Stephen died in 1967 and the final production he directed was David’s Cock & Bull Story during the summer of 1965 at the Library Theatre; the only other play he directed that season was, notably the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Meet My Father – which we now know as Relatively Speaking.

Sadly, Stephen’s death also essentially marked the end of David’s time with the company.

David had very much been Stephen Joseph’s man – he was responsible for executing Stephen’s estate following his death in 1967 – so it is perhaps telling that between 1967 and 1971, David – who had been so prolific – was not produced at the Library Theatre. His commission from Alan Ayckbourn for 1972 was a swan song to his career at the SJT.

Carmilla saw Alan Ayckbourn directing David’s adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire story, which was well-acclaimed not least for convincingly bringing an atmospheric gothic horror story into the round, playing it for chills rather than laughs.

Jennifer Piercey as the vampire with victim in David Campton’s Carmilla (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

David died in 2006 at the age of 82, shortly after receiving the Doctor Of Letters at the University of Leicester, having undoubtedly made a significant and lasting mark on British drama. His work is still popular today, particularly with amateur companies and more than thirty of his plays are still published by Samuel French.

While David’s plays continue to be popular, his association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre is largely forgotten now, despite the fact he was so significant during its formative years and is, undoubtedly, one of the theatre and Stephen Joseph’s earliest success stories.

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.

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

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