Ghost Story: The Play That Was Spirited Away

Following the blog’s venture into supernatural territory several weeks ago, it seemed appropriate to continue along this theme with some more spooky goings on at Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, is well known as the originator of one of the world’s most famous and successful theatrical ghost stories, The Woman In Black; written by Stephen Mallatratt and adapted from Scarborough born author Susan Hill’s classic novella.

Less well known is the fact that two years later, Alan Ayckbourn also presented a ghost story in the theatre which ran for just six performances before subsequently vanishing for a couple of decades!

This exclusive extract from the 80th Anniversary Edition of the book Unseen Ayckbourn by Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, goes behind the scenes of Ghost Story.

Ghost Story (An extract from Unseen Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd)

Ghost Story – also known as The Fearsome Threesome (and also Ghost Stories) is a long forgotten Alan Ayckbourn play, produced only once and now considered one of the playwright’s Grey Plays (a produced play only performed once before being withdrawn and unpublished).

Unseen Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd

Although a manuscript exists in the Ayckbourn Archive, details surrounding it are quite sparse as the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round – which originally produced the play – has very few details in archive and the playwright himself has little memory of it.

The Fearsome Threesome is the name of the actual play – actually a monologue – but it was produced under the title of Ghost Story (or Ghost Stories) as a late night event in the Studio at the Stephen Jospeh Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, during the 1989 / 90 winter season. It had just six performances and was advertised as ‘a short season of late-night readings of ghost stories in the studio theatre’. Somewhat confusingly the piece is referred to as both Ghost Stories and Ghost Story within the theatre’s season brochure and there is no mention of Alan Ayckbourn either writing or directing the piece – which suggests a late change to the planned production.

The piece is a monologue read by either a male or a female actor (only two scripts survive, one written for a male narrator, the other for a female), sat by a table with a bottle of wine and an empty glass, who becomes aware of the audience and tells their tale of ‘The Fearsome Threesome’. Two years earlier, following an acrimonious divorce, the narrator unexpectedly meets a couple, Martin and Sheila, at the theatre and they immediately become fast friends. The initial warmth of the friendship soon becomes tainted by the narrator’s jealousy of Martin and Sheila’s seemingly perfect and happy relationship; the narrator feels they do not appreciate what they have nor experience the difficulties most people encounter in life. The narrator attempts to disrupt the couple’s happiness initially with petty acts of vandalism which gradually escalate until they poison one and seduce the other (dependent on the sex of the narrator); by which point it has become obvious we are dealing with an unreliable – arguably unstable – narrator, who sees her dangerous and malevolent actions as an entirely rationale response to Sheila and Martin’a apparently perfect relationship.

Narrator: You see, someone needed to tell them, didn’t they? Someone needed to remind them just how fortunate they both were to be surrounded by all this happiness that they accepted as if by right. Because perhaps they didn’t realise that a lot of people in this world weren’t quite so lucky and weren’t quite so happy. Not at all they weren’t. And it wouldn’t do the Martin and Sheilas any harm perhaps to be reminded of the fact, just gently, just now and then. And then maybe they wouldn’t be smiling quite so much all the time. And laughing and singing. Perhaps they’d appreciate that life could also have a serious side.

When Sheila and Martin eventually shut the narrator out of their lives, the latter decides the couple are still being unreasonable in their happiness and decides to take away the one thing they believes makes them happy, their home. The narrator sets fire to the house, unwittingly – perhaps – killing Martin and Sheila in the process. Having told her tale with no regrets, the narrator reveals it is the first anniversary of the fire as they opens a bottle of wine mysteriously received shortly before the fire. The narrator drinks the wine before quickly collapsing back into the seat, managing a final toast to ‘absent friends’…

Behind her two charred. frightening figures mysteriously appear. Bespectacled. They are holding wine glasses. The two figures raise their glasses in mock salute. The women sees them and gives a great cry, goes rigid for a second and then slumps in he chair, dead. Distant laughter is heard as the two figures raise their wine glasses in a mocking toast. They vanish mysteriously as they appeared.

Interestingly, the apparitions materialised courtesy of a ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ effect with the two ghosts played by the theatre’s press officer Jeannie Swales and the box office manager Joy Beadle. Given the small space in the Studio, it appears it was quite an effort to create a ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ which requires a large sheet of angled glass in order to produce the illusion of people and objects fading in and out of existence (one of the most famous uses of it is within Walt Disney theme parks in the ‘ballroom’ sequence of the Haunted Mansion ride). Given the amount of effort involved to produce the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ effect, it is perhaps surprising there is no specific mention of the effect in the sole-surviving manuscript and the ghosts merely ‘mysteriously’ appears and disappear.

Although it is only speculation, the Studio saw the world premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s famed adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black in 1987. It is on record that Alan was inspired by this to write his own ghost story to match the success of The Woman In Black – which eventually appeared as Haunting Julia in 1994. It does not seem far-fetched to suggest that The Fearsome Threesome was devised primarily to see whether a ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion could be created in the theatre’s small studio space and perhaps incorporated into a play.

As to why the production was never advertised as a new Ayckbourn work, the answer will probably never be known. It has been suggested that the initial idea was to just have readings of classic ghost stories by whichever actor was available following the night’s main house performance. This obviously changed (although the existence of both a male and female version of the script suggests it was still intended to be read by whatever actor was available) with Alan writing an extended monologue which did not alter throughout the run. It then does not seem implausible to suggest this was a trial run for something larger as it otherwise seems highly impractical to rig up such an unwieldy – and presumably not inexpensive – stage effect for just a six performance, small scale show that would have been seen by no more than 450 people maximum.

What is also intriguing is the play essentially vanished for a number of years. Although the script was held in the Ayckbourn Archive, because there was no record of context for it, it was forgotten and even the playwright himself couldn’t remember what it was for originally by the time it had been dug out of archive. It took the discovery of a contemporary advertisement for Ghost Stories, combined with the recollections of Jeannie Swales for the script to be restored as a produced Ayckbourn play and for the playwright himself to – vaguely – recall it!

A ghost story, indeed.

Unseen Ayckbourn is published by Lulu Books and further details can be found here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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