Essential Images: The Square Cat

Essential Images is a new regular feature which will look at each of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays through a single, significant photograph from its original production.

Essential Images: The Square Cat by Simon Murgatroyd

Alan Ayckbourn’s first professionally commissioned and produced play was The Square Cat which opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in July 1959.

The image for this play is a publicity image featuring Alan Ayckbourn and… Alan Ayckbourn.

Alan Ayckbourn as Jerry & Arthur in The Square Cat (© Haydonning Ltd)

It’s fairly common knowledge that when Alan Ayckbourn was challenged to write his first play by his mentor, Stephen Joseph, one of the provisos was he wrote a good role for himself. Indeed, part of the impetus which led to Alan to write his first play was his dissatisfaction with some of the roles he was playing as he was, at this point, focused on his acting career.

It’s not widely known – largely because The Square Cat has never been published, is unavailable to produce and only a handful of copies survive within various archives – that not only did Alan write himself the lead role, but he wrote himself two roles!

Alan played the flamboyant rock ‘n’ roll star Jerry Wattis as well as his mild-mannered alter-ego Arthur Brummage. This offered plenty of opportunity not only for much farcical action, but lots of quick changes of costume and character by Alan.

Within the play, a mother comes to a country home to dance with her idol, Jerry Wattis, unwittingly followed by her family. She discovers Arthur instead and when her family mock her, Jerry appears and chaos ensues. Throughout this, the daughter falls in love with Arthur and is the only person to discover he is both Jerry and Arthur. The play finishes with the mother completely unaware her daughter’s new partner is the man she intended to dance with (and just to emphasise, I’m using ‘dance’ literally rather than metaphorically!)

The more famous image of Alan Ayckbourn in The Square Cat (© Haydonning Ltd)

What makes this photograph fascinating to me, rather than the more obvious shots of Alan as Jerry, is that back in 1959 – when the play premiered – there was no marketing office or much of a budget for promotion the Library Theatre’s plays. A few production photographs were taken which were used on promotional postcards and which – very occasionally – also appeared in newspaper reports, but there’s not much else. It doesn’t appear to have even had its own poster.

This paucity of publicity or behind the scenes images make this all the more special. Someone took the time to cut and paste (and this was in a time when that was a literal term with a couple of photos, the scissors and glue!) two images of Alan as the different characters into one photo. It is the first publicity image for any Ayckbourn play.

The image reproduced here is based on the original ‘photograph’ but due to its poor condition, it’s received some TLC by Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, for use in talks on Alan’s early plays. The original photograph is held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York.

You can find out more about The Square Cat by visiting its in-depth section at the playwright’s official website here at alan ayckbourn.net and there’s also a video telling the storey of how The Square Cat was created in the Ayckbourn YouTube Channel here.

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