Celebrating 20 Years at Westwood (pt.1)

Recently, the blog explored how the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round altered over the course of its 20 years’ existence from 1976 to 1996 (click here to read).

One of the comments mentioned Alan Ayckbourn’s own record of the 20 years of the company at what was colloquially known as Westwood, published in the souvenir programme for the final production at the venue before the company moved to its present home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Given it’s more than 25 years since the article was published, we’re reproducing the article in two parts offering the perspective of the company’s then Artistic Director of his memories of this period and of Westwood.

The article is by Alan Ayckbourn with annotations by his archivist, Simon Murgatroyd. Look out for part 2 soon.

Celebrating 20 Years at Westwood (part 1) by Alan Ayckbourn

1976 The big move from Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Vernon Road – our home for 20 years – to the new Westwood School Building.

Alan Ayckbourn outside the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round ( © TBC)

0ctober. 2.00 pm. We start the technical rehearsal for our opening production, Mr Whatnot, a revival of my 1964 play. As I enter the auditorium and look back at the foyer there is a cement mixer outside the box office and the bar, at the far end, is buried under a pile of timber. I have a premonition this might be a difficult birth.

7.25pm. After a five-and-a-half hour technical rehearsal I step out into the foyer. The cement mixer has gone, the carpet is down and there is a queue at the box office. At the bar, people are buying drinks. Someone has wrought a miracle.

December/January 1976/7. I persuade in-the-round regular Stanley Page to repeat his wonderful performance as Davies in The Caretaker (1962). It was a role he first created in the Victoria Theatre, Stoke production in which on and off for two years I also played Aston. I was very happy on this occasion to hand that role on to Bob Eaton.

Next, my first new play for our new theatre at Westwood. It is written over the Christmas holiday (a bad idea). We have poached eggs for Christmas dinner. Three quarters of the way through I abandon the first draft and have to start again. Ten Times Table emerges finally, the story of a well meaning but quite disastrous charitable committee, all at loggerheads. Many assume this is based on the characters who make up Scarborough Theatre Trust during the theatre’s recent move. They may be right. [1]

Summer 1977. Our second season. Life as hectic as ever. Fallen Angels is our first production. Robin Herford plays the Frenchman in the last act so we are able to rehearse Sleuth, our second production, in the theatre’s scenic workshop during the first two acts of Fallen Angels. As everyone has predicted the maid, played by Diane Bull, steals the show. A certain tension in the air. There was, I later discovered, another version of Fallen Angels in which the maid barely features. Evidently the one favoured by leading ladies. Wrong!!!

During this season, Jubilee Year, we present the first of our lunchtime studio shows in the bar. Written by Bob Eaton, it’s enormously successful. Westwood Coronation Day Street Party. Bob Eaton sings his clever songs. Malcolm Hebden reprises the wig he wore in Mr Whatnot. Tom Laughton, our Chairman, declares it quite the best thing we’ve ever done. [2]

Winter 1977. Opens with Pygmalion. Confirms my suspicion that I am not a director of George Bernard Shaw. The more I cut the thing the longer it seems to get. Christopher Godwin (Higgins) and Diane Bull (Eliza) do their damnedest. Stanley Page gives the first Australian Doolittle (good on ‘yer, Henry Iggins).

Then another big costume play, A Man for all Seasons, with Robert Austin in the title role. Michael Holt designs a stunning set and we go mad (as usual) with both the sound and light plots. Dialogue can be faintly heard. Actors dimly made out. John Arthur plays Cardinal Wolsey. As he is one of the naturally funniest actors I know, I was very lucky to get away with that particular casting. Very few laughs at all.

We finish with a production of Hindle Wakes directed by Stanley Page which features every Northern accent known to man and several never heard before by anyone. Mostly incomprehensible. Even darker than A Man for all Seasons. We must buy more lanterns.

We end the season with my second new play for Westwood, Joking Apart, which could become one of my favourites so far. David Millard, our production manager, brings together a truly atmospheric set with real trees and grass and all the accompanying insect life that comes with it. Robin Herford sprawled out on the grass one night comes face to face with a centipede (non-Equity). Bob Austin discovers a great comic creation in Sven, the ex-Finnish junior tennis champion.

Spring/Summer 1978. Also in the season, Rookery Nook which we struggle to get right but never manage. Ben Travers whom I’ve recently met comes to see a performance. He is very polite about the production and consumes at least two bottles of Bollinger whilst on the premises. I apologise for failing to get a section right although we followed his stage directions faithfully.

“That’s alright,” he replies, “I don’t think we ever got it right, either.” I am captivated and hope, if I live to 93, I can be as magnanimous. We follow with Associate Director Mervyn Watson’s first production, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. Designed as the season’s safe banker, it does the trick. My abiding memory is of John Arthur in a blonde wig and mock Gucci shoes. Thank God, it’s a comedy.

Winter 1978. Brian Thompson’s first play for us, Patriotic Bunting. It’s one of those rare plays (for us) in that it’s actually set in Scarborough. Good, funny, unpredictable, unpatronising comic writing. We seem to be rehearsing in the scenic workshop again.

Then Mervyn’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. James Bate (Guildenstern) walks into the auditorium for the first time. “Right, that’s the dressing room, now where’s the stage?” People keep banging on my office door threatening to resign. Could it be a symptom of Mervyn’s confrontational directorial style? No-one’s saying.

I am busy finishing Sisterly Feelings, one of my ‘alternative ending’ plays (or in this case alternative middles) featuring a set which turns the Theatre’s A and B blocks into a 1 in 5 grass gradient down which at one point Robin Murphy rides an ancient pushbike which takes some courage. On the technical fit up Jeremy Turner, the designer, drops, steps on and destroys his glasses. He is totally blind without them, I discover. I walk round the set with him, confirming the colours. “No, that’s green. Darkish green.”

On the first ‘random’ night – the subsequent action determined by an on-stage character’s toss of a coin – the half-crown lands edge on and rolls offstage and half way along the passage to the bar. The cast walk sheepishly offstage, following the rogue coin. So much for random spontaneity. [3]

One potential customer refuses to buy tickets on grounds of the title. She informs the box office that she ‘does not care to watch plays about lesbians.’ Presumably implying that she can get all that at home. Lavinia Bertram reveals a hitherto unheralded side of herself when she turns up for the technical rehearsal with a set of custom-made funny teeth for her character, Brenda. I give them the OK. At this stage of uncertainty, we can use all the comedy help we can get.

Christine Welch (wife of actor Chris Godwin) writes and directs the first of her children’s plays for us, a piece of story theatre, Once Upon a Time. I love it.

Spring 1979. The Seagull launches our fourth extended season, the first time we have opened before Easter. It is the second time I have indulged a passion for directing my most favourite of dramatists, Anton Chekhov. The first time was at the Library in a production with Chris Godwin as Uncle Vanya. The Guardian described the production then as cringingly ropy. For The Seagull, the great British public – true to form – stay away in their hundreds. Ah, well. On current form my Three Sisters when that arrives should close the theatre.

Another Neil Simon (whom people do want to see) Barefoot in the Park. And Brian Thompson’s second play, Tishoo. This calls for live rabbits in cages onstage. It’s set in a common cold research centre. We compromise with hutches full of straw and inanimate furry objects operated from offstage by string. No-one is convinced. John Arthur, though, is wonderful in the leading role.

Our lunchtime and late night season is well developed by different shows a week throughout the summer months. Stephen Mallatratt pens a late-night, comic strip delight entitled St Trixie. It is the first time the f – word is used in the theatre (onstage anyway). We wait with bated breath. No one in the audience seems in the least bothered. This is the first year in our new (second phase) arrangement with the bar moved to its revised position. Plus a new shop, extra offices and improved backstage arrangements including – hooray – a rehearsal room.

Winter 1979/80. The Crucible. Probably the biggest cast to date we’ve presented on that stage (about 17 in total). Which goes to prove Stephen Joseph’s old maxim that every square foot of in-the-round stage is viable playing space (which is more than can be said for most proscenium arch stages). The play is visually terrific (designer Michael Holt); Trevor Smith and I light the famous courtroom scene with just eight lanterns. We are both very proud of this but the actors’ comments are unrecorded.

Also this season, Taking Steps. One of our biggest comedy successes. The audience response is so great on the first night that at the end of the first act it overloads the theatre’s ancient show relay system, cutting it out completely. Thereafter no-one backstage can hear the show at all. I break my own rule and go round in the interval to congratulate the cast. I am surprised to find them rather tense, sitting in silence. “Personally,” says the lugubrious John Arthur who plays the drunken bucket manufacturer, Roland Crabbe, “I find all this laughter a bit frightening.” You can’t win.

To end the season, Musical Director, Paul Todd and I combine for the first time to write Suburban Strains, a seriously complex musical. Well, at least thanks to designer John Halle, it gives us our revolving stage for all time.

Summer/Winter 1980/81. The season opens with Time and the Conways in which I use, yes, the revolving stage. We decide, shortly afterwards, to take the revolving stage up in order to prevent all future productions spinning needlessly. [4]

A terrific company – self energising – always a bonus. It means as a director you can sit back and enjoy the ride more. Tessa Peake-Jones, Abigail McKern in her first stage appearance and a splendid Marcia Warren as the grande dame, Mrs Conway. Leo McKern comes to see the show and asks to be ‘slipped in quietly just before it starts so my daughter won’t know.’ He enters late and the whole audience rises and applauds Rumpole to the rafters. [5]

Winter 1981 / 82. A stylish The Importance Of Being Earnest directed by Robin Herford but best remembered on the first performance for Lane (Jeffrey Robert) dropping all the sandwiches in the wings just before the tea party scene. He replaces them hurriedly. The onstage cast pick their way gingerly through the debris. Why is it that theatre disasters are what one remembers? The garden scene has real fountains with real water in them. This plants the seed of an idea.

My own writing contribution to this season is Season’s Greetings (officially my 25th play complete with silver poster). [6] A dissatisfied local tradesman demands his money back saying some of the sexual explicitness disgusted him. I feel rather proud. I’ve never disgusted anyone dramatically before. Well, not to my knowledge.

The season finishes with Robin Herford’s production of Michael Frayn’s Clouds in the studio theatre swathed in butter muslin. Quite the most adventurous production to date staged in that space. He has an actor in the cast to play the chauffeur who, it turns out, has never driven in his life. Robin spends most of the rehearsal teaching a man to mime driving.

Summer 1982. A season of totally new plays. Quite remarkable really. Brian Thompson’s third play, The Conservatory, Paul Copley’s Tapster and Peter Tinniswood’s childhood fantasy, You Should See Us Now. Whilst in the studio Paul’s and my Me, Myself and I, which I have to rehearse in my lunch hours (two places at once syndrome). It turns out just as well as if I’d been there throughout all rehearsals. Which makes me wonder sometimes about the usefulness of directors. Finally Out Front by Trevor Cooper which nobody much enjoys except the critic of the Scarborough Evening News who comes to see it nine times. There’s always one.

Winter 1981/2. The seed has germinated. We present Way Upstream, probably our boldest scenic coup, complete with ten inches of water, moving boat, landing stage, and full supporting rainstorm. More remarkable because the design/technical team Edward Lipscomb, Trevor Smith and Francis Lynch have less than a month’s notice as to the play’s technical requirements. (I am still at the phase of completing new plays only hours before the rehearsals start.) The resulting achievement by everyone is remarkable.

On the first preview the entire audience seems to be made up of people who had somehow got involved – boat builders, engineers, water experts. When the boat casts its moorings and moves away from the bank they all stand and cheer. The Queen never had such a launching. In the excitement, the theatre’s first glimpse of male and female full frontal (and back) nudity goes almost unnoticed. We do notice, though, from the advance booking plan that the seats in A and B blocks where it all happens frontally so to speak tend to sell first. Ah-ha, Scarborough, caught you at it!

The play goes on, infamously, to all but close the National Theatre. [7] Of the dry land productions this season we stage our very first Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, directed by Robin and Making Tracks, my second musical collaboration with Paul Todd.

Summer 1982. A rather unusual summer. It features only two actors, Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford who, having survived their trip to Houston, Texas with Way Upstream agree to tackle my play cycle Intimate Exchanges which at the start of the season is largely unwritten. In fact it will be written, staged and completed over nearly a year. Ten characters, thirty scenes, sixteen hours of dialogue. They become so confident that they often start the evening having all but forgotten the lines of the last fifteen minute scene which they will play that night. (There are sixteen such scenes to choose from). I find them in the interval running the lines whilst they change costumes. I am suddenly the one who’s feeling nervous.

Winter 1982/3. By the autumn we have saved enough on actors to do one or two larger scale productions including de Fillipo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday. The best moment is probably the scene in which the cast of 20 silently sit and eat their way through plates of spaghetti while the audience waits salivating but fascinated. They make a killing later in the bistro selling… plates of spaghetti. [8]

Also in the season is my loose (very loose) adaptation of Sheridan’s A Trip to Scarborough. Paul and I finish with a musical revue, Incidental Music. Not a huge success in the main house. In the round musicals are very difficult.

Summer 1983. This season includes another Peter Tinniswood play, At the End of the Day (never do sequels) and Michael Cashman’s exotic Before Your Very Eyes which includes a stage guillotine, a woman sawn in half, and a ‘vanishing’ cabinet so large you could lose a double decker bus in it. The season also features Robin Herford’s production of The Winslow Boy. Our first Rattigan. I notice how much the so-called ‘smart’ accent has vanished amongst actors in the rush to claim bona fide working class antecedents. Actor Rupert Vansittart as the fiance, the genuine article, shows the way.

Winter 1983/4. I kick off with my new one for the year, It Could Be Any One Of Us, my first venture into the treacherous world of the comedy thriller. This has any one of three possible murderers who vary from night tonight. The only problem with the play is that I forget to provide a corpse. Apparently thriller aficionados prefer to have a corpse. Bloodthirsty lot. I must remedy that sometime.

Robin Herford directs enjoyable, traditional She Stoops To Conquer. We follow up with Ben Travers’ classic Thark which I cope with a lot more successfully than Rookery Nook, largely because on this occasion I ignore all Ben’s stage directions. Paul and I stage another musical revue (will we never learn?) The Seven Deadly Virtues. It’s even less popular than last year’s.

Summer 1984. Malcolm Hebden returns to the company this time as Associate Director (in place of Robin Herford who’s off to London with Intimate Exchanges). His first production is The Dresser which, considering it’s a play all about the traditional proscenium arch theatre, he manages to solve rather ingeniously. Then Priestley’s The Linden Tree. A rather neglected piece and very touching.

Before all this though we launch the season with A Chorus Of Disapproval, my own sortie into the world of small town politics and amateur operatics. I had originally intended to include some of the local amateur singers to form the chorus. When I met them I discovered that none of them was at all interested in chorus work, it was the lead or nothing. Stupid of me. Finally Equity stepped in and put a stop to it all, anyway.

We re-install the revolve for the show on which the company dance whilst it’s in motion. One night the operator takes it the wrong way. The stage is covered in actors laughing helplessly.

The season ends with Michael Cashman’s second play for us, Bricks ‘N’ Mortar, set on a building site and in which we actually build a wall (of sorts). Russ Dixon (whose teeth are his own) manages somehow to mime taking false teeth out on stage and losing them in a bucket of cement. Now that’s what I call acting.

Winter 1984/5. A season of mixed fortunes. Sometimes audiences just seem to get up and go elsewhere for a time. York? Hull? Perhaps three American plays doesn’t help. Malcolm Hebden back acting in Last of the Red Hot Lovers does just fine but A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room, a telling study of WASP society and a production of which I was inordinately proud, sends them scurrying for their videos. Later we try Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns which doesn’t fare much better. Single (male) parent Jewish New York families don’t appeal either. Malcolm Hebden makes a quick appearance dressed as Chuckles the Chipmunk. You’d have thought that would have been worth the price of admission.

I do some filming for this with members of our younger Theatre Group, Rounders, which I think will excite them. They ask if they will be paid. I might have known. What’s happened to the good old British spirit of amateurism and child exploitation?

Later on, in a veritable blaze of inventiveness, designer Eddie Lipscomb manages to remove most of the seating from the auditorium entirely when I direct Sandy Wilson’s His Monkey Wife. We even have a boat (again) sailing along behind the back row of C and D blocks. The main entrance becomes a desert island hut whilst A and B blocks become respectively a bar and a cabaret slot with a six-piece band. The half dozen or so patrons (including the author) who manage to find seats appear to enjoy it and, at a stroke, we have solved the problem of dwindling houses. Less seats, higher percentages.

Summer 1985. After the run of Intimate Exchanges in the West End, Robin Herford returns to the theatre as both actor and associate director for Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! which is a huge and (certainly as far as I’m concerned) unexpected success.

Ursula Jones returns to play Susan in Woman in Mind and heads a wonderful cast including a first appearance by Barry McCarthy as the dithering doctor, Heather Stoney as Muriel, Susan’s ‘black hole’ of a sister-in-law and Russell Dixon as the sanctimonious Gerald.

Winter 1985/6. I get an offer from Peter Hall I can’t refuse to come and run a company at the National. It’s too good to miss. He very craftily realises that it is about the only offer that could ever lure me away from Scarborough even temporarily. It is only for two years but it means someone else must run the company in my absence. I feel very possessive but ask Robin Herford who knows the place as well as I do. I know it will come to no harm.

To complicate matters further, Ken Boden who has been General Manager and cornerstone for so long also decides it’s time to retire. Next year a new team. We kick off the (temporary farewell) season with a revival of one of my earlier near misses, now entitled Family Circles. I should have left it alone.

Next another big production, a two-part adaptation of Christopher Fry’s TV Series, The Brontes. “The trouble with the Brontes is that they all keep dying,” an actor is heard to remark during rehearsals. Never mind, in our version they invariably came back as somebody else, thoroughly vindicating Patrick’s belief in the Hereafter.

Alas, this is the time of the teachers’ strike and not a single, eagerly expected school books to see it. We regularly play to less than there are in the cast. The Brontes are not the only ones that are dying. The cast keep up their spirits by holding their own award ceremonies. Best death by a female novelist. Best drunken brother, least successful railway employee, etc.

Finally a production of Tons of Money, a good old fashioned farce that preceded the better known Ben Travers-Aldwych series. It’s terribly unfunny. I have already agreed to do it in the Lyttelton as the opening play of my National Theatre season. I sit down and start re-writing.

To be continued…

Annotations by Simon Murgatroyd

[1] Alan has credited inspiration behind Ten Times Table to both the many committee meetings he attended prior to the company’s move to Westwood in 1976 as well as meetings for the Richard III festival held in Scarborough in 1976 and which the theatre was initially going to stage a play for.

[2] Tom Laughton is a key figure in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Brother of the actor Charles, Tom was a Scarborough hotelier and leading community figure, who was extremely supportive of theatre in the round in the town. Alan dedicated his play A Chorus of Disapproval to Tom.

[3] Sisterly Feelings features alternative scenes for act I, scene ii and act II, scene I. The choice of which is performed is determined by a coin toss for the first and the random decision of an actor for the second.

[4] The revolve – actually a dual revolve – was used sporadically later. Little known is it was a key component of the original production of A Chorus of Disapproval, which has never subsequently been staged the same way.

[5] At the time, Leo McKern was most well-known for his television role of Rumple of the Bailey, created by John Mortimer.

[6] At this point, the Ayckbourn play-canon had not been officially set and did not include his musical Jeeves. As a result, Season’s Greetings is now regarded as his 26th play in the canon rather than the 25th.

[7] Infamously, the West End production of Way Upstream saw the water tank crack and thousands of gallons of water spill into their National Theatre’s electrical switch room. With the Artistic Director, Peter Hall, away, Alan had to make the decision to entirely close the National Theatre. Notably, the National Theatre ignored all the advice of the original production designers about not building a rigid tank as there was every danger it might… oh, right…

[8] The spaghetti was prepared every night by Scarborough’s award-winning Italian restaurant, La Lanterna Ristorante – coincidentally, Alan’s favourite restaurant in Scarborough.

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

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