Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1973)

Our weekly delve into the history of the early years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre continue today with a trip back to 1973.

1972 had been a successful season for the Library Theatre in Scarborough which included the debut of a bona fide Ayckbourn classic, Absurd Person Singular. Alan Ayckbourn had been appointed Director of Productions for the summer season, but the theatre board made a significant decision.

During November 1972, Alan was appointed the Artistic Director of the company – a permanent, contracted position. The legacy of Stephen Joseph and the future of the company was now firmly in Alan’s hands. But before all that, he had a more pressing issue.

What to stage for his first full year as Artistic Director? The decision would not only affect that summer’s programme but would also influence Alan’s thought processes throughout his 37 years as Artistic Director of the company.

1973: Staging A Conquest by Simon Murgatroyd

1973 is a slightly problematic year when looking at the history of the Library Theatre.
It marked Alan Ayckbourn’s first full year as Artistic Director and was – for the period – a remarkable steady year with no major crisis or issues.

In fact, arguably, the most notable event of 1973 at the Library Theatre was the world premiere of one of the classic pieces of 20th century playwriting, The Norman Conquests. Which is a subject which has practically been written to death! However, The Norman Conquests also marks the start of something which has become an integral and essential part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s history.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1973 (© Haydonning Ltd)

The event play or, as Alan dubs it, event theatre. Plays which celebrate theatre and which – for various reasons – celebrate the liveness and uniqueness of the theatre experience. Plays which, essentially, can’t work in any other medium – or at least not provide anything like the experience seeing it live provides.

“I believe that a regional theatre needs to include something out of the ordinary every so often. Just to remind everyone that the theatre’s still there!”

Not that the move to event theatre was a deliberate choice by the playwright as The Norman Conquests was, by all counts, an accidental creation. Not seriously intended nor planned, it came about as the result of possibly a moment in jest with a journalist.

“At the end of the [1972] Scarborough season the local press boy came bounding up the stairs and asked what I’d got planned for next year. I said dunno, might finish up with a trilogy. So there was a note in the paper, “Trilogy Eagerly Expected.” I didn’t put a denial in. I thought since the Gods have said that, let’s have a go. “

Thus – much to the surprise of the board of Scarborough Theatre Trust – Alan launched the first of his event works, which was unequivocally ambitious in largely dedicating a summer season to three inter-related plays, which – conceivably – might never find an audience due to the Library Theatre being heavily reliant on Scarborough’s tourist trade at the time.

“I was aware that it would be optimistic to expect an audience like this [predominantly tourists] necessarily to be able to give up three nights of their precious holiday to come to our one theatre. Any suggestion that it was essential to see all three plays to appreciate any one of them would probably result in no audience at all. Similarly, were the plays clearly labelled Parts One, Two and Three, any holidaymaker determined to play Bingo on Monday would probably give up the whole idea as a bad job. The plays would therefore have to be able to stand independently yet not so much that people’s curiosity as to what was happening on the other two nights wasn’t a little aroused.”

The original Norman Conquests company in Table Manners (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Indeed this is the only production of the trilogy which did not emphasise the roiling nature of the experience or the fact that ultimate satisfaction requires the audience to see all three parts of the play. It was only with its subsequent transfer to London that this aspect of the trilogy became prominent – and it was only at this point when the play opened at Greenwich during 1974 that the plays were referred to The Norman Conquests for the first time; the title was never used for the original Scarborough production.

Despite this and the perceived risk of a trilogy during the summer season, The Norman Conquests was a hit beyond any reasonable expectations at the theatre – audiences apparently embracing the multi-part aspect of the narrative as as reported by The Stage newspaper on 9 August 1973.

“In the first six weeks of the summer season of theatre-in-the-round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy of plays – Fancy Meeting You, Make Yourself At Home and Round And Round d The Garden – has broken all box office records at the theatre and will continue in repertoire until 15 September.”

The first of many of Alan’s ‘event plays’ had been launched. Over the following decades, these events would help to define the SJT and its ability to risk-take as well as celebrate the uniqueness of theatre.

Little less than a decade later, Alan would again challenge every aspect of the SJT with his epic Intimate Exchanges. A play which extrapolated how the tiniest choices we make can have the most profound effect on the directions our lives take.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1982 with a foyer board illustrating the many paths of Intimate Exchanges (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

“The play is about those tiny decisions we all make in our lives that lead to bigger consequences. It’s a huge concept and is very difficult as there are just two actors playing a total of 10 roles. All the characters are very different and it is a feat of memory for the actors to learn about 16 to 17 hours worth of dialogue. After a production like this you don’t have a nerve in your body because it can’t get any worse!”

Such is the scale of Intimate Exchanges – a play with 16 possible outcomes performed by two actors playing 10 roles with over 30 hours of dialogue in total – that it has only been staged twice in its entire since its premiere and both times by Alan’s Scarborough company during 1982 and 2006.

The next true ‘event’ was in 1989 to celebrate Alan’s 50th birthday when he wrote The Revengers’ Comedies, a play in two parts running for more than five hours!

“I’d made it to 50, so I thought I’d give people a present. You can’t have an ‘event’ every year, or they become ordinary – but every two or three years, I like to do something a bit different. I wanted to do a big show, an event and you need to really challenge yourself now and again, otherwise you tend to churn out the same stuff. These feature two of the most complex people [Henry & Karen] I have ever written because I have been allowed to write them out over such a period of time.”

A very rare example of the world premiere poster for The Revengers’ Comedies (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The Revengers’ Comedies was the undoubted highlight of the 1989 summer season and it attracted attention from around the world – most notably when the New York Times critic Frank ‘the Butcher of Broadway’ Rich visited Scarborough praising both the play and the company. Saturdays became a highlight of the season when both play were performed during the same day and, during the break between performances, picnics would take place in the grounds of the theatre with audience and company intermingling.

Ten years later, Alan would create the spiritual successor to The Norman Conquests with House & Garden with two plays performed by one cast in two auditoria simultaneously; famously this had been his original concept for The Norman Conquests in 1972, but which took until 1999 to actually realise.

“I wrote the plays simultaneously to mark my 60th birthday, and I honestly thought it was a bit of fun. I’m always looking for ways to make theatre live. The most important thing to me is that it’s an incredibly live event. Theatre is constantly being questioned these days – people ask what its relevance is when we’ve got such good virtual reality machines. Essentially the thing that distinguishes it is that it’s live.”

Janie Dee & Robert Blythe in the world premiere of House & Garden at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1999 (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

The event nature of the piece was emphasised with the fête around which the plays revolve spilled out into the foyer at the climax of the play – a third part in which the audience and company interacted and met.

Arguably the most recent piece of event theatre was the Damsels In Distress trilogy in 2001 which saw repertory returned to the SJT with a single company performing in three plays connected only by the same set and an over-riding theme.

“It’s a huge venture, occasionally nerve wracking but always exciting. I suppose all that live theatre’s meant to be, really.”

ALan Ayckbourn with the original company of Damsels In Distress at the SJT (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

The trilogy of GamePlanFlatSpin and RolePlay was another huge success for the SJT and even saw the entire Scarborough company transfer to the West End the following year.

And like the plays before it, the treats of the season were the days when an audience could spend an entire day in the theatre watching all three plays within a single day. Sadly – with the exception of the revival of Intimate Exchanges during 2006 – Damsels In Distress marked the last of the event works to be seen, as of writing, at the SJT.

But for all those people who have seen these often epic plays, there can be few who have not forgotten the experience. It is something to treasure and look back on and to hope there may be events like this in the future – all of which can be traced back to an off-hand comment back in 1972!

You can find out more details about all these plays at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website at www.alanayckbourn.net.

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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