Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1975)

The penultimate season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, featured an unusual occurrence in which a play was advertised but then pulled from the schedule.

This week’s blog looks at the history of the plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre which were announced but – for whatever reason- were never actually performed.

1975: The Never Seen Plays by Simon Murgatroyd

Since 1955, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has produced – as of writing – 641 plays.

Over the decades, the Literary Department and its antecedents have read thousands of other plays and there have been many plays commissioned but which have never made it into the public eye.

There’s also a fascinating grey area where plays were scheduled for production, announced to the public – even cast – but which for various reasons then vanished without a trace, mostly never to be heard of again.

In 1975, there was an excellent example of this with a play called Up To The Eyes by Peter King, which was announced as part of the penultimate summer season at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.

Peter had a long history with the company having joined it as an actor in 1961, appearing in David Copperfield. He appeared in 16 productions between 1961 and 1965 including the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Meet My Father – now better known as Relatively Speaking.

He was also a writer and, by 1975, had had two plays premiered at the Library Theatre with All Together Now (1973) and Away From It All (1974). It appears, like many writers before him, he was being nurtured as a playwriting talent by the company.

Indeed when the summer season for 1975 was announced, Peter had his third play in three years with Up To The Eyes, as the Scarborough Evening News reported.

The Scarborough Evening News report on Up To The Eyes (© The Scarborough News)

“A new comedy Who-dun-it, Up To The Eyes, has been written by Peter King for this summer. He is the author of last season’s Away From It All. The mystery has three detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlowe, and Sherlock Holmes, plus songs and a clog dance to the accordion.”

And yes, you did read that right. The great detectives and a clog dance.

Tickets for the production went on sale and it was due to open on 14 July 1975. However, things did not go to plan. On 11 June, the Scarborough Evening News reported the play had been withdrawn following an “amicable agreement” between the author and the company’s Artistic Director, Alan Ayckbourn.

The press officer, Tony Banfield, reported the script had not been what was expected and the play would be replaced by Angels In Love by Hugh Mills – which featured the same sized cast, which was handy given the Up To The Eyes had already been cast!

Whilst what happened behind the scenes will likely remain a mystery, Alan Ayckbourn recalls he suggested the idea to Peter King of several fictional detectives all trying to solve the same case, but when the final script arrived, it included songs and Holmes’ confidant Dr Watson performing a clog dance – not quite what Alan had imagined.

So Scarborough audiences were robbed of the chance to see this unique take on whodunnits, although unlike all the other ‘lost’ Scarborough plays, this one did actually have a life of its own outside Scarborough.

The play was retitled Dead Eyed Dicks and in 1976 opened at the Theatre Royal Brighton with Peter O’Toole playing all three detectives with John Standing as Dr Watson. The play would go on to to tour Australia.

This was not the only ‘lost’ Stephen Joseph Theatre play though with the first dating all the way back to 1963 when the summer brochure announced a two week run of the world premiere of Necessary Doubt by Colin Wilson; “a thriller. which is more than a ‘whodunit’, by Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider.”

The story behind this is interesting as this marked probably the only case of ‘star casting’ by Stephen Joseph. The novelist and philosopher Colin Wilson was, briefly, very successful and renowned achieving notoriety in 1956 with the publication of The Outsider; the book looked at the works and lives of various famous artists, exploring the psyche of the ‘outsider’ and their effects on society.

As a result of it, Wilson became a cause celebre and the book is credited with introducing the concept of existentialism to a wider public in the UK; his follow-up books were nowhere near as successful and his spell of fame was brief.

Stephen had come into contact with Wilson years earlier and encouraged him to try his hand at playwriting, hoping the connection between the Library Theatre and Wilson would be beneficial for the Library Theatre.

Wilson wrote a short one act play, Viennese Interlude, in 1959 which was produced at the Library Theatre. In the interim, Stephen encouraged Wilson to write a full-length play and obviously believed Wilson had written one with Necessary Doubt. However, despite the fact the play was advertised by the theatre, it was replaced late in the day by a triple bill of plays by James Saunders with no reason given for the alteration of programme. Intriguingly, the following year saw Wilson publish a thriller by the same name with a science-fiction twist and it seems plausible that this was inspired by his work on the play.

Possibly the most famous of the ‘lost’ Scarborough plays is Alan Ayckbourn’s proposed 25th play (actually his 26th, but this was before Jeeves was considered part of the play canon) which received national media interest when it was announced in 1980 that Alan Ayckbourn was to write a thriller called Sight Unseen.

Sight Unseen announced in the Scarborough Evening News (© The Scarborough News)

Alan announced he was working on an idea for his latest play in July 1980 for premiere on 24 September at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. At this point, Alan was working to the latest possible deadline – generally the day before rehearsals were due to begin!

News of the play was carried by publications such as the Evening Standard and The Stage and – judging from Alan Ayckbourn’s surviving notes – it was intended to be a random murderer thriller in the same vein as It Could Be Any One Of Us, which he wrote in 1983. Two weeks before rehearsals, Alan had cold feet and decided to abandon the play utilising only the same size cast, many of the names of the abandoned play and the setting of a hallway to write an entirely different play instead called Season’s Greetings.

Despite this last minute change of plan, rehearsals were only delayed for a day and Season’s Greetings would go on to become one of the classic Ayckbourn plays.

Fast forward to 1987 and we find Stephen Mallatratt writing his latest work to be premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Of course, this was the year that Stephen unleashed The Woman In Black on the world. But he was advertised to write another play for the summer season, Wonderland.

The play was – again – advertised in the season brochure to run from 30 September and judging from the advertising copy, it would have attempted to tackle a challenging subject.

“There are few worlds that conjure up more disturbing images for outsiders than the dimly perceived world opt the mentally and physically handicapped. Yet that same world holds a store for us too, of other images – kinds, unselfish love, amazing tolerance, an un-self concious demand for contact and massive trust. It is fascinating, warm and friendly world in which Stephen Mallatratt sets his new play Wonderland…. Mallatratt has again chosen to look at people who are effectively shut off from us, and yet unquestionably have the same needs, the same rights and the same hopes as our own. Wonderland is a moving and at times hilarious play that employs the playwright’s considerable skills to look at people and not the handicaps.”

However, during the first week of August, Wonderland was pulled from the schedule and replaced with a production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita starring Robin Herford and Bernadette Foley. Unusually for the ‘lost’ plays, the Artistic Director – then Robin Herford as Alan Ayckbourn was on his sabbatical at the National Theatre – made an announcement about the play.

“All theatre programming involves an element of risk, and particularly in that area where we pride our record most – that of encouraging and commissioning new writers – perhaps the greatest risk of all. Stephen‘s play, dealing with the issues of mental handicap, involved him in an enormous amount of research, and has already gone through several re-writes. It is still proving to be even more difficult to construct than we had imagined, and that in order to do justice to this important and complex subject, we have decided that further work is necessary before a production is possible.”

That production never came and it is believed the play was never completed. Stephen would, as noted, go on to write The Woman In Black later in the year, which has never been off stage around the world since.

The penultimate ‘lost’ play is one which generated a fair amount of unintentional controversy in 1988 when Peter Tinniswood’s State Of The Union was promoted as part of the summer season.

Peter had written previously written for the SJT with You Should See Us Now (1981) and At The End Of The Day (1983) and State Of The Union was scheduled to run from 2 June 1988 throughout the summer, directed by Alan Ayckbourn. The summer brochure contained a quite detailed description of the play:

“Warwick is a man in the middle of unions. As publicity officer for a small northern seaside watering town he has arranged Hallam-on-Sands’ first ever trades [sic] union conference. It is no coincidence that the President of the Union is Warwick’s father-in-law. Nor is it a secret that Warwick’s own union with his wife Brenda is, like Hallam-on-Sands itself, rather gracious and run down – after 15 years of marriage, two dogs and disputes over where to live. Brenda’s mum and dad aren’t too happy either. And then there’s the two dogs…”

Throughout the summer, a conflict between the theatre’s former manager Ian Watson and the publicity officer Russ Allen had spilled out into the likes of Private Eye and The Stage. Into this was drawn State Of The Union.

Allen had devised a publicity campaign which possibly ranks as one of the strangest promotions ever devised by the theatre. Flyers were published promoting the fictional seaside town of Hallam-on-Sands, but there was no indication this was either not a real place or connected in any way to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

The flyer for the play State of the Union with no details about the play or venue… (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Normally, there would be a give-away such as a telephone number which when called would have explained everything, but in this case the telephone number was an outgoing calls-only security line linking directly to the Police Station….

Soon afterwards, the play was withdrawn from the schedule with the explanation it was not yet ready and replaced by J.B. Priestley’s Eden End. Meanwhile, the advertising campaign was obviously scrapped and quickly forgotten.

The final – as of writing – of the ‘lost’ plays once again belongs to Alan Ayckbourn, although the title itself will be very familiar to many SJT fans, Private Fears In Public Places.

But this not the play which Alan wrote in 2004 and which went onto New York in 2005 to draw some of the highest acclaim the playwright has ever received. This was an entirely different work….

Private Fears In Public Places was originally intended for to launch 1994 at the SJT as the first play of the year, opening on 27 January and widely advertised through the theatre’s brochure and in the media.

“At the airport, Jessica waves a fond farewell to he husband. Then a chance encounter changes her life. How well does she know, how far she can trust herself?”

Intriguing as this promotional copy was, we would never find out what happened to Jessica and her chance encounter. As he began writing the play, Alan encountered difficulties and decided he would write another play instead.

The published brochure page for Private Fears in Public Places (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Unfortunately, he made that decision on the same day the winter brochure went to print and despite the best efforts of the press officer, Jeannie Swales, the brochure went off to print, advertising a play which would never be seen and was instead replaced by his time- travelling thriller Communicating Doors.

Whilst the play’s plot has never been revived or re-worked for later plays, Alan was fond of the title and later re-used it in 2004 for an entirely different play!

So no matter how many plays at the SJT you may have seen over the years, no-one has seen every play announced and advertised, as several just got away.

Whilst we have only the odd scraps of information about them, they are still a fascinating and little known aspect of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s long history.

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 Alan Ayckbourn and 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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