Alan Ayckbourn is indelibly associated with his adopted home town of Scarborough, but did you know he has only written one play set in the town? And that it was an adaptation?
Arranging A Trip To Scarborough by Simon Murgatroyd
A Trip To Scarborough. If any play was an obvious candidate for Alan Ayckbourn to tackle, this Restoration comedy by R.B. Sheridan surely was it.
Except Alan didn’t think much of the play at all when he first read it.
What Alan did like was John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse, the play Sheridan had adapted when writing A Trip To Scarborough. But The Relapse didn’t have the appeal of Sheridan’s title. What could the solution be?
Obviously(!), adapt Sheridan’s play but taking the same liberties as Sheridan had done with Vanbrugh’s play, as Vanbrugh had done with another play by Colley Cibber.
In effect – and in what must be the most convoluted history of any Ayckbourn play – he wrote an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation / sequel. Confused? Let’s head back several centuries and sort it out.
The 17th century was a notoriously turbulent period in English history, in 1649 Charles I was executed and England became a republic for the next 21 years. Under the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell, theatres were closed, only to be re-opened in 1660 when Charles II ascended to the throne and the Monarchy was restored.
A lover of theatre, Charles II commissioned Christopher Wren to build two new London theatres in Drury Lane and Dorset Gardens with exclusive play producing rights being granted to two companies based at these theatres, the King’s Company and the Duke’s Company.
This signalled the beginnings of Restoration Theatre which was epitomised by the bawdy, flamboyant and irreverent. It also saw women taking to the stage for the first time in English history.
However, the following decades were not easy for theatre with bitter in-fighting between the two acting companies, dwindling audiences and a moral backlash against the perceived excesses of the Restoration Theatre led by vocal reformers who considered theatre one of the lead instigators in the deterioration of English society. The Societies For The Reformation Of Manners and its figurehead Rev. Jeremy Collier were particularly effective in their attacks and struck a nerve with the wider public.
With accusations of profanity, immorality and mocking the church levelled at theatres, leading writers found themselves having to defend their work whilst several leading actors were imprisoned. Into this atmosphere stepped the actor Colley Cibber with his first play Love’s Last Shift, or The Fool In Fashion, the play to which A Trip To Scarborough can ultimately be traced back.
The play opened at Drury Lane in 1696 and was a tremendous success. It was the hit of the season, became a staple of the repertory for years to come and did wonders for the reputation of Cibber, who had previously been regarded as a jobbing actor. Cibber himself played the comedy role of the aristocratic fop Sir Novelty Fashion and such roles would become the hallmark of his acting career.
Love’s Last Shift itself is now a rather obscure play and practically forgotten, but it does have its place in history as it is regarded as the father of Sentimental Comedy – the conservative response and successor to the Restoration Comedies. Although the play bridges both Restoration and Sentimental Comedy, its master stroke was to buck the trend by endorsing marriage as being superior to infidelity. This struck a chord with audiences and even Rev. Collier could find little to complain about, which is not something that can be said about its far spicier sequel produced later the same year.
In November 1696, John Vanbrugh premiered The Relapse, or Virtue In Danger at Drury Lane, an ironic sequel to Love’s Last Shift with Cibber reprising his role of Fashion, now known as Lord Foppington. The play, conceived and written in less than six weeks according to Vanbrugh, continued Cibber’s story but was less morally palatable with Loveless, the hero of the original, returning to infidelity and Lord Foppington the victim of a deceit by his younger brother to rob him of his wealthy bride-to-be. It is a play of two plots that have practically nothing in common and only cross-over twice (with no effect on the other). The play was a more typical work of the period and a far wittier, bawdier and more robust piece than the original. It was a success with audiences, but did not meet with Rev. Collier’s approval.
In 1698, Collier produced his most famous tract A Short View Of The Immorality, And Profaneness Of The English Stage which specifically targeted Vanbrugh for The Relapse and his second play The Provok’d Wife as well as the playwright John Congreve. Collier hated The Relapse and he criticised both its technical competence and its morality. Vanbrugh tried to defend it, but the barbs obviously stung as Vanbrugh wrote nothing more of note for the theatre and became far more famous as an architect.
The Relapse, like Love’s Last Shift, proved to be a hit, though, and found itself in repertory for several decades to come. Although it later fell out of fashion it has been notably revived by both the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967 and the National Theatre in 2001.
The next stage in A Trip To Scarborough’s history would take place a century on, by which point the Sentimental Comedy that Cibber had foreshadowed was now a dominant theatrical genre, characterised by a moralistic tone. Richard Brinsley Sheridan would attempt to make The Relapse palatable to the prudish and conservative audiences of the 18th century.
Sheridan had achieved fame in 1775 with his play The Rivals, the success of which enabled him to buy a share of the Drury Lane theatre and to become its manager in 1776. Much attention was focused on Sheridan’s first season and what his new play would be. His decision to adapt The Relapse – to be known as A Trip To Scarborough – was greeted with surprise, but may partly have been due to the play The Man Of Quality (1773) by the actor John Lee, which unsuccessfully turned the Foppington plot of The Relapse into a short farce. Sheridan decided to rewrite Vanbrugh’s play with the actors James William Dodd and Frances Abington reprising the roles of Foppington and Hoyden they had performed in The Man Of Quality.
The decision to adapt The Relapse, a play no longer fashionable, was a controversial one for Sheridan and one that was not executed particularly well. Sheridan appears to have agreed with Collier’s prudent criticisms of the play as he both tidied up and improved the structure while removing the bawdiness of the original piece for a more inhibited audience, eliminating much of the fun along the way.
Sheridan attempted to merge the two plots of The Relapse, relocated the action to Scarborough (hence the change of title to A Trip To Scarborough) and introduced large amounts of exposition and narration; the audience being left in no doubt as to the characters’ motives or feelings. The sexual exuberance of the original was removed and this particularly affected the character of Berinthia; the sexual adventuress of The Relapse is transformed into a timid, guilt-ridden creature who constantly doubts her actions and whether they will estrange her from her husband to be.
More extreme characters such as Vanbrugh’s outrageous homosexual Coupler, who patently has his eye on Young Fashion, are erased completely and – in the case of Coupler – replaced with the staid Mrs Coupler, a character who serves no purpose but to move the plot forward.
Practically all of Vanbrugh’s wit and bawdiness is toned down in the play, although there are only minor adjustments to the Foppington plot. The Loveless plot contains substantial alterations which lead to a more contrite and subdued plot.
Although the initial reaction to the play was mixed, it gained in popularity and became a regular in the repertory at the expense of The Relapse, which practically vanished from repertory. However, even Sheridan had reservations about his play noting “I think the worst alteration is the nicety of the audience. No double entendre, no smart innuendo admitted, even Vanbrugh and Congreve obliged to undergo a bungling reformation.”
For all Sheridan did to the piece, it is a largely forgotten play that was overshadowed by the phenomenal success of Sheridan’s next play, the far superior The School For Scandal.
A Trip To Scarborough’s journey had not quite finished, though, for a century later Alan Ayckbourn turned his own eye to Sheridan’s piece, largely as a result of it being a play nominally set in his adopted town of Scarborough.
Aware of the work, Ayckbourn read Sheridan’s adaptation but thought little of it and considered it inferior to The Relapse, with which he was already familiar. However, he felt there was some interesting material and that there was a precedent to taking the bare bones of what he considered worth saving (largely the Foppington plot) and interweaving two entirely new plots set in the 1940s and the present day with all the action transposed to the foyer of the Royal Hotel, then owned by a friend and the chairman of Scarborough Theatre Trust, Tom Laughton.
As with much of Ayckbourn’s work, the play is a technical challenge with practically all the actors playing three versions of their characters, demanding not only quick changes of costumes, but of acting styles. The play was premiered during the 1982 Christmas season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, and featured a cast of 12 with a band of three – quite a change for the theatre which was in the midst of producing Intimate Exchanges, an epic cycle of plays featuring just two actors. The play was very popular with audiences and generally attracted good reviews with critics enjoying the experience and the fun of the evening rather than considering it as a classic Ayckbourn play.
The play did not transfer to the West End and was also largely been forgotten over time. Never published, it was only professionally revived when the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s sister theatre The New Victoria, Newcastle-under-Lyme, revived it in 1987.
However, during 2007, Alan Ayckbourn returned to and revived the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, as the theatre’s Christmas offering.
Predictably – bearing in mind the play’s history – Alan revised the piece again largely bringing the 1980s section up to date for the contemporary audience (largely through the addition of mobile phones). Although the play’s action was nominally still set in the Royal Hotel for this production, the revised script transposes the action to a generic Scarborough hotel for future productions of the play; sadly the Royal Hotel no longer has the grandeur of the days when the play was first written.
Sadly, the play has not been revived since 2007 and is one of less well-known of Alan Ayckbourn’s many plays. Despite this, it certainly has one of the most interesting histories of his works and no other Ayckbourn play can be said to trace its history back to the 17th century!
P.S. For another perspective of A Trip To Scarborough, head over to The SJT blog and a lovely article by actor Michael Cashman – later Lord Cashman – about his experiences in Scarborough in in the original production of A Trip To Scarborough. Click here to visit the blog and read the article.
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and the Administrator of his official website http://www.alanayckbourn.net.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.