Ayckbourn Behind The Camera

Yesterday it was announced that Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play, The Girl Next Door, will be streamed next week by the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

This will mark the first time a staged production of an Ayckbourn play, directed by Alan Ayckbourn himself at his home venue, will have been recorded and streamed – which makes this quite a special event.

While you’re waiting for The Girl Next Door to come online (from 28 June to 3 July – details below and at www.sjt.uk.com), it seemed appropriate to look at the rare times Alan has actually stepped behind the camera.

Alan Ayckbourn has been writing and directing plays for more tha six decades and has remained resolutely loyal to theatre and to the stage; he’s never fallen for the lure of televsion and film, although a surprisingly large number of his plays have been adapted for television and film without his involvement.

Alan has generally stayed as far away as possible from filmed adaptations or streamings, prefering to concentrate on his stage productions. However, there are several times when he has been lured behind the camera.

Men On Women On Men (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

He has been involved in the filming of four of his works – three of which are incredibly obscure. The first is in 1979 when BBC North screened a television recording of Alan’s first musical revue, Men On Women On Men.

The revue, written with the compser Paul Todd, had premeired at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, during the summer of 1978. The next year, the BBC recorded it at its studios in Leeds. It featured three of the original four cast members and was essentially re-directed by Alan as it had been originally staged in Scarborough, but cut down to just half-an-hour of songs.

Alan is credited as director of this piece, which was filmed in black and white, and was screened on BBC North – so only seen in the Yorkshire region – at 10.15pm on 2 February 1979. It has never been screened again.

There was a hope at the time this might lead to more regular recordings of Alan’s work from Scarborough, but it only resulted in one other recording. This was in 1984 with another of Alan and Paul Todd’s revues, The 7 Deadly Virtues.

This time, the BBC came to Scarborough and recorded the actual revue in the theatre, directed by Alan with the original cast. Like Men On Women On Men, it was confined to a half-hour slot and saw a couple of the songs removed, necissitating a title change to just Deadly Virtues.

Again this was screened by BBC North, so only Yorkshire viewers got a chance to see its one and only late screening. Very little is known about this production as it seems doubtful whether it has survived in archive, but the presumption is Alan was credited as director as it was a recording of his own production.

The closest we have to a recording of an Ayckbourn play, directed by Alan himself, came in 1984 with the educational series English Files. This BBC Schools production recorded an episode set entirely at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round during November 1983.

The programme followed the complete process of bringing a play to the stage from first read-through to rehearsals to final production. Alan wrote a short play specifically for the programme, A Cut In The Rates, and a truncated production week saw the entire process recorded over a five day period.

This included a live recording in front of an audience of A Cut In The Rates – which utilised the set of the current production, Michael Cashman’s Before Your Very Eyes – which was performed for one night only. It’s the closest there has been to a live recording of an Ayckbourn play, directed by the playwright himself.

The 30 minute programme – including the performance – is a fascinating, if truncated, insight into Alan’s rehearsal methods and was screened several times by the BBC in its educational schedules and was last broadcast during 1987.

Which brings us to the final production and the one which is probably most familiar to Ayckbourn fans. In 2001, a decision was made to record Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical By Jeeves, prior to its transfer to Broadway.

Whilst this was essentially the Broadway production of the play, it was a studio production, filmed in Canada in a village hall set with an ‘audience’ – in appropriate period dress. Alan is credited as Director with Nick Morris as Film Director – obviously, the production is Alan’s own and how it was filmed was handled by Nick Morris. Alan himself remembers it as the only time he really got behind a camera and was actively involved in a filmed production of one of his own plays.

The Girl Next Door (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

And so we arrive at The Girl Next Door, which has been filmed and edited by Director of Photography Daniel Abell and is a live recording from the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, of Alan’s current production of his latest play. It stars Bill Champion, Linford Johnson, Alexandra Mathie and Naomi Petersen.

This is, to all intents and purposes, the first time an actual Ayckbourn-directed stage production of one of his full-length plays has been recorded in a theatre for broadacast – which makes it an essential watch for any Ayckbourn fan.

Incidentally, The Girl Next Door also marks only the second time an Ayckbourn live production has been streamed. The only previous stream was when the Nartional Theatre presented its production of A Small Family Business, directed by Adam Penford, as part of NT Live in 2014.

Perhaps The Girl Next Door will mark a turning point for recordings of Alan’s plays and the opportunity to see Alan’s own productions in Scarborough will become more readily available for a wider audience in the years to come.

The Girl Next Door is streaming from 6pm on 28 June to 3 July 2021, concurrent with the final week of its run at the SJT. Tickets for the film are £12 each, with a group ticket available at £15. A version of the film with added bonus features including interviews with Alan Ayckbourn and Kevin Jenkins costs £20.

Tickets can be bought via the box office on 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com from 10am on Tuesday 22 June.

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

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