Stray Bullets

On 18 January 1977, Alan Ayckbourn premiered Ten Times Table at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.

It was a play notable for being inspired by the move to a new home for the theatre company and it also marked the first time an Ayckbourn play moved out of the suburban home into the world at large.

During 2019, this lesser-known play from the Ayckbourn play canon had a major revival and toured the UK, for which Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist – Simon Murgatroyd – wrote this programme note exploring the background of the play.

Stray Bullets by Simon Murgatroyd

“It’s a parable of our times, written by someone crouching in the middle along with most of the population, praying not to be hit by a stray bullet.” Alan Ayckbourn

1976 was a time of change. For Alan Ayckbourn, it was a year dominated by often frustrating attempts to find a new home for his company. For the country, a tumultuous political period was developing.

From this febrile atmosphere, Ten Times Table emerged. A play which reflected a new direction for Ayckbourn’s writing as well as, arguably, tackling wider social issues for the first time.

The poster for the world premiere of Ten Times Table at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1977 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Prior to October 1976, Ayckbourn had been based in the Library Theatre in Scarborough. Founded by Stephen Joseph in 1955 as the UK’s first theatre-in-the-round company, he had joined in 1957 as an actor and subsequently made the move into professional writing and directing.

By the mid-1970s, Ayckbourn had been appointed Artistic Director and begun to move the company away from just summer rep to an all-year round operation. In order to attract audiences on grim Yorkshire winter nights, he decided to change his established writing pattern.

Previously, his plays had been written during spring for a summer debut. In 1975, he wrote the first of his ‘winter’ trilogy with Just Between Ourselves. The playwright is the first to admit this transition had a distinctive effect on his writing. How could it not when he wrote ‘mainly at night – whilst the North Sea storms hurtled round the house, slates cascaded from the roof and metal chimney cowlings were bounced off parked cars below my window, rebounding hither and thither like demented pinballs.’

Whilst there is no denying there is a dark edge to much of Ayckbourn’s work from Time & Time Again (1971) onwards, the edge became more pronounced and sharper with these winter plays. Just Between Ourselves charted a woman’s inexorable slide towards break- down as her husband looked obliviously on, Joking Apart (1978) saw the disintegration of several relationships caught in the dazzling glare of an apparently golden couple.

Ten Times Table, whilst not as intimate as these plays in its destruction and undoubtedly of a lighter nature, nevertheless portrayed a broader chaos encapsulating the effects of extreme ideologies clashing as stridently held views become entrenched.

A scene from the world premiere of Ten Times Table at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1977 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Ten Times Table also made a significant and literal departure for the playwright. For the first time, he stepped out of suburbia into the world at large – or at least the local hotel. Prior to this, his plays had been predominantly confined to living and dining rooms, kitchens, bedrooms and gardens. Here he took a tentative step outside.

A tentative step as the play was conceived with a foot still in the suburban household as a multi-location play set not only in the Swan Hotel but also the homes of the various committee members. This became another point of significance.

Ayckbourn wrote Ten Times Table over Christmas 1976 and, midway through Christmas Eve night, he was faced with a rather thorny dilemma. Halfway through writing the play and 48 hours from deadline, he realised, in his own words, ‘I simply can’t go on, I don’t know where we are.’

Of the approximate 45 typed pages, half of them went in the bin as the playwright tracked back. Realising he should have never moved out of the Swan Hotel, he began to rewrite the play resulting in him missing Christmas Day – dinner being two poached eggs – and Boxing Day as he rushed to complete the play in time for rehearsals starting on 29 December. The only time he had previously rewritten a play so extensively was in 1972 with Absurd Person Singular.

Not only did the play become a single location, but one of the other casualties was his own partner, Heather Stoney! As the playwright dictated the play for her to type, she discovered her character, Charlotte, had been completely cut! Happy Christmas….

Christopher Godwin as Tim in the world premiere of Ten Times Table at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1977 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Ten Times Table featured the largest company yet seen in an Ayckbourn play and this was mainly the result of his inspiration, which inexorably ties into the playwright’s recent experiences. In January 1975, North Yorkshire Libraries Committee announced the 20 year old Library Theatre was no longer welcome. Alan had just a year to find a new home for the company.

During the following months, he found himself involved with an inordinate number of meetings; most pointless in regard to solving the theatre’s future, but they were inspiring in other ways.

“Committee people are a race apart. I spent a year on committees in Scarborough. It changes your personality, like driving a car. Small men can become very big men and, conversely, important people are reduced to nothing. There are basically three types – the unstoppable talkers, the people who never say anything and my type – the ones who never turn up at all.”

Alan had found the subject of his next play. And as the play reflected the local politics he had experienced, it’s hard not to argue that Ten Times Table at least acknowledged larger unfortunate rifts in the country.

“There are certain polarisations in society, with the private-army merchants on the right and the Marxist reactionaries on the left, and Ten Times Table is written from the point of view of the little man in the middle.”

Polly Warren, Desmond Maurer & Diane Bull in the world premiere of Ten Times Table at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in 1977 ( Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It was undoubtedly an uncertain period. Ten Times Table was written at the close of a year during which James Callaghan was both appointed Prime Minister and his Labour Party lost its majority in Parliament on the same day. Public sector strikes were becoming common – setting the stage for the ‘winter of discontent’ two years later. Unemployment had passed 5% with inflation at 17%.

In short, the stage was being set for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party to sweep into power barely three years later; the pervasive influence of the ‘Iron Lady’ even acknowledged in the West End transfer of Ten Times Table in 1978. The playwright recalls the actor Julia McKenzie finding inspiration for her role of Helen in the shape of the then leader of the Conservative Party who would famously become the UK’s first female Prime Minister a year later.

That is not to argue Ten Times Table is a state of the nation, Political play. Alan is not nor ever has been interested in writing those. But it’s perhaps the first play which concerns itself with the politics of a community with both a small and a capital ‘P’.

The most curious aspect of Ten Times Table though is that whilst the play was well received and respected, it essentially faded from view for much of the following three decades. After a West End run and several years of popularity with rep theatres, it be- came one of the more obscure pieces in the Ayckbourn canon.

Yet in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the play from both professional and amateur companies. Perhaps it’s just the cyclical nature of popularity when there are more than 80 Ayckbourn plays from which to choose.

Alternatively, the play feels rather apposite in the current political climate and as we watch it, we recognise Alan’s feelings from the 1970s of crouching in the middle just trying not to be hit by stray bullets.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Images copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust. Please do not reproduce this article or the images without permission of the copyright holders.

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