Celebrating 20 Years at Westwood (pt.2)

Last week, the blog ran the first part of Alan Ayckbourn’s extended reminiscence of his time at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round from 1976 to 1996 (click here to read).

This was the second home of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre and where Alan spent the largest part of his 37 years as Artistic Director of the company.

This is the second part of the article which was written by Alan for the souvenir programme for the final production at Westwood. Annotations are by the playwright’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd.

Celebrating 20 Years at Westwood (part 2) by Alan Ayckbourn

Summer 1986. Robin Herford takes over the Artistic Directorship. [1] We spend a lot of time, initially, on the phone. His first season includes Coward’s Blithe Spirit and a new play by Stephen Mallatratt, Touch Wood and Whistle. I return to guest direct a revival of Time And Time Again. I have chosen a lot of the cast with him but it all feels a bit strange. Particularly since life seems to be going on very much the same without me. Is this what it feels like to have died?

An unusual view of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round taken from Valley Bridge (© Tony Bartholomew)

Winter 1986/7. Busy as I am trying to find my way round the National (sorry, wrong theatre, my mistake), this is a season I largely miss. John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance is just the sort of play I would never in a month of Sundays have included, thus proving the clear benefit of having an alternative director now and again. Paul Copley’s bingo play, Calling, is the one production I never even see. Stephanie Turner comes in as guest director with Michael Frayn’s Benefactors. Rather a grey play.

Summer 1987. Robin’s second season includes Stewart Parker’s delicate memory play, Spokesong and then Malcolm Hebden thoroughly enjoying himself playing the lead in Alan Bennett’s Getting On. I ‘guest’ to direct my new one, a study in female robotics, Henceforward… Barry McCarthy as the insular, obsessed Jerome has never been bettered and Serena Evans produces the star quality performance of which we knew she was capable. Designer Roger Glossop makes his Scarborough debut. I had first worked with him in London on Woman In Mind and then on my last production at the National, the enormous (33 actor) version of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. I learn later that this last production cost the equivalent of eight years’ worth of Scarborough production budgets. I blush.

Winter 1987/88. The temporary custodianship finishes on something of a high with first Robin’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and then Stephen Mallatratt’s inspired adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It is very hard to scare the modern theatre audience, sophisticated things that they are, but the small studio theatre is a perfect setting and Michael Holt’s set is inspired. This play subsequently proves to be by far the longest running West End play this theatre has ever originated.

Summer 1988. I return but the company is still on tour with Henceforward… and I find myself rehearsing in Norwich. Then Cambridge, then Poole in Dorset. Very unsettling. We open with Priestley’s Eden End which does OK and we then feature a run of new plays including Frank Dunai’s Chekhov short story adaptation The Parasol, my own Man of the Moment (in which I continue my flirtation with onstage water, this time in the form of a swimming pool).

Peter Hall in the midst of a marriage break up and fleeing from the national press comes to see a couple of the shows. He arrives at my front door in dark glasses and (truly) carrying a copy of War and Peace. “Are you planning to stay for long?” I ask.

Next Peter King’s The Ballroom. The cast all take ballroom dancing classes and become proficient in the Fox Trot and the Quick Step. John Pattison, our Musical Director, joins us for the first time. He and five identical dummies play the entire six-piece band. He sits motionless, apparently one of the dummies onstage, for half an hour before the show starts whilst the audience files in, frightening old ladies by winking at them. I am so glad to have done this last show. Peter King is an old friend from way back when the Victoria Theatre first opened in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1962. Shortly after the production, Peter dies at a shockingly early age.

Winter 1988. Robin Herford returns to guest direct Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Strategem. Terrific. Later, at Christmas I write the first of my plays for the younger audience, Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, the first performance of which, in front of an audience of children, is one of the most terrifying of my life.

To finish, I persuade Robin and Stephen to follow up their success with The Woman in Black by doing a version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as a threehander. It doesn’t work at all. Motto: never do sequels. Never ask other people to do sequels. When will we ever learn?

Summer 1989. This is a two-play summer, one of which is guest director Alan Strachan’s enchanting version of Lardner and Kaufman’s June Moon. A real neglected find of a play. Adam Godley, who has been with us a year, and Claire Skinner, new to the company, combine to produce the most enchanting pair of juveniles – James Stewart meets jean Harlow.

The other play is my own The Revengers’ Comedies which I intend as a sort of fiftieth birthday present. I can’t now think who on earth the present is aimed at. Certainly not myself – the thing is a technical nightmare and puts years on me. In two halves, four parts, thirty scenes, playing time well over four hours, often on a single day with Glyndebourne style intervals. We all lose a lot of weight this summer. I eat a lot of cold salmon. The production is, incidentally, the first Scarborough collaboration of my regular design team, Roger Glossop (settings) and Mick Hughes (lighting). We actually finish up having a lot of laughs.

Winter 1989/90. The season opens with Wolf At The Door by Henry Becque, a 19th century French classic (seldom performed) that had been suggested to me by David Walker, French Professor at Keele University. I must admit looking at the cast size my heart initially sank a little but I was so gripped by the story that I set to and collaborated with him on a new version. Apart from tinkering around with Tons of Money, this is my first real go at an adaptation. It’s rather fun. Like driving someone else’s car. It proves far more successful than I dare hope, possibly because, as someone points out, it deals with subjects that fascinate us all, namely sex and money, (never a bad selling combination!). Success is also due to the presence of Bernard Hepton in the cast. Marvellously dyspeptic.

Neil Simon reappears with a very successful production of his Brighton Beach Memoirs by Michael Simkins. I retain Michael’s set and write the second of my ‘family’ shows, Invisible Friends to fit it. Who says we aren’t thrifty? To finish, another revival, this time of Absurd Person Singular. Illness strikes regularly and we have three Marions in so many weeks, one of whom, Lynette Edwards, had only dropped in that night to see the show, poor thing.

Summer 1990. A rather gruesome summer due to the presence of Body Language in the repertoire. This entails two actresses, Lia Williams and Tam Hoskyns, apparently exchanging bodies and shapes during the course of the action. To achieve this, the theatre is soon littered with realistic rubber arms, legs and torsos undergoing repair or lying about ready to wear.

The season also sees the return of guest director, Alan Strachan with Frayn’s Alphabetical Order and a loose adaptation (again rather gruesome) of Zola’s Therese Raquin by Derrick Goodwin, retitled Abiding Passions. John Pattison sits at the back throughout the show and plays live creepy music rather in the manner of the Phantom of the Opera.

Winter 1990/91. Dominated rather by the presence of one great actor, Michael Gambon, who first of all electrifies the space with his Othello and then by way of a light reprise brings his own inimitable comic touch to a revival of Taking Steps. He dislikes playing the round, though, which tends, he feels, to cramp his acting style as well as his predilection for onstage practical jokes. He still manages whilst half drowning Ken Stott’s lago in the onstage fountain at the height of apparent Moorish passion to shout, “Shampoo and set, shampoo and set!” He claims nobody noticed. I did.

Caroline Smith, who directed a whole early season at the Library here [2}, returns to direct The Price. Not one of my favourite Miller plays, and by the look of it not many other people’s in Scarborough either. We finish with my latest ‘family’ play Callisto 5. All robots, explosions and high tech. ‘video. Alison Fowler, our new Production Manager, looks on the point of leaving for a quieter life. Not much of a family play, the adults are bored to tears, but the kids like it. Maybe I’m on the right track.

The season closes on a successful note with Malcolm Hebden’s production of the American two-hander, Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade. Gentle, romantic, reassuring and quiet. Alison decides to stay.

Summer 1991. One of the happiest summers ever (and that’s saying something). We open with Wildest Dreams in which it is noted that the children’s plays I am writing seem to be taking over the adults’ ones. It contains the first genuine kiss between consenting females in one of my plays. I hope the lady who wouldn’t see Sisterly Feelings comes to it.

The season also includes Peter Tinniswood’s The Village Fete in which Lighting Designer Jackie Staines and I try to define the entire set by light. I think it works. Also Malcolm Hebden returns with the first major revival for ages of Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son, later produced at the National Theatre. Not a load of laughs, dear, says the marvellous leading man, Peter Laird. But a fine, unjustifiably neglected play.

Winter 1991/92. Two productions from Malcolm Hebden now firmly re-established as the company’s full-time Associate Director. Firstly, TO by Jim Cartwright [3] and then Dangerous Obsession by N.J. Crisp. TO is one of those sad instances where we, the Theatre, are proud of the work but the audiences stay away in their coach loads. Despite being loved by those who do see it, TO does not, as they say, chime. I blame the title.

Dangerous Obsession is quite the reverse. In general, we avoid so-called commercial thrillers. We rarely find room for them in the repertoire and many of them are so badly written. It is thus with a certain hesitancy that we present this piece of hokum. Needless to say, it packs them in. We stand by, happy but incredulous.

After Christmas, another surprise success – One Over The Eight by Peter Robert Scott – when I find myself back with boats again, this time with a rowing eight, featuring some of the largest, fittest, most extrovert and exuberant actors I have ever attempted to direct. One of them is arrested outside Scarborough Town Hall up a tree at midnight. Saskia Wickham, the solitary woman in the cast, fresh from her huge success in TV’s Clarissa is a wonderful sweet, sane, calming presence. The success of the show does little for the author who personally regards it as the least satisfactory play he has ever written. We designate this season part of the learning experience. [4]

Summer 1992. Time Of My Life, my restaurant play, opens the season with Terence Booth as six different waiters and with time flowing in all directions. Stephen Sondheim comes to a preview and has fish and chips at Wacker’s before hand. [5] I am Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford for a year and am clearly moving in all the best circles.

Next, Malcolm’s production of Clifford Odets’ romance Rocket To The Moon. Newly appointed staff director Connal Orton directs Tim Firth’s Neville’s Island. They have worked on the script together going off and getting very wet in the Lake District. Connal reintroduces water again to the stage much to my delight. Tim Firth is a wonderful new writer. Watch this space.

Winter 1992/3. Features the first collaboration between John Pattison and myself with Dreams From A Summer House. We behave like all good song writing teams and go away to a hotel (in Majorca) to write it. Surprisingly we work all day, every day, undistracted by topless sunbathers and promises of cheap alcohol. Till the evening that is. It’s the life. We come back with a gentle show full of sunshine. Maybe we should try Greenland next year.

The season also includes Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, the latest of my family shows My Very Own Story (very complicated) and Prince On A White Bike by Charles Thomas. The last is that curious instance of a play which worked on the page but never quite lives up to expectations onstage. It could have been us, I suppose.

Summer 1993. Twenty years after they were premiered in Scarborough I become uncomfortably aware that there is now a potential audience for The Norman Conquests who weren’t even born when the plays were first presented. We open the season with Feed (to give me time for rehearsals) and Malcolm is persuaded (though perhaps that’s too strong a term) volunteers to return to star as an embittered old music hall performer in this splendidly evocative piece by Tom Elliott. Partnered superbly by Lesley Nichol, it is also incidentally, the first appearance on the Scarborough stage of Sophie Winter who was later to become such a special part of the Scarborough ‘army’. In the studio, young writer Vanessa Brooks makes her Scarborough debut with Take it to the Green Light Barry. Another talent to watch.

Winter 1993/94. Features one of the greatest hits we’ve ever had at Westwood, Love Off The Shelf written by New Zealander, Roger Hall. It is without doubt one of the silliest shows I have ever directed and quite, quite delightful. The cast are uniformly beautiful and virtually edible.

The season also contains an uneasy hybrid of a play, Physical Jerks, originally Italian but re-set in Scotland. I never do discover why. One of those good ideas… at the time. Then Tim Firth’s second full-length play for us, The End Of The Food Chain (like Physical Jerks directed by Connal Orton). The play is set in a wholesale food warehouse and results in the backstage areas being piled high with obscure lines of packaged or tinned food, most of it years past its sell by date. The company crunch through it quite happily. Theatre people will eat anything that doesn’t involve cruelty, even stale biscuits. The Christmas show is Malcolm’s revival of my first family play Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays.

We end with Communicating Doors which is to continue into the summer. I had resolved to try and write something this time with plenty of plot and lots of laughs that would make people jump as well. At one point an arm comes up through the sofa. They jump. The old gags are still the best. The play again features water, this time a fully functional hot and cold bathroom. Needless to say, we have a lot of trouble with leaks. Stefan Gleisner, Deputy Production Manager, spends ages with his head under the bidet.

Summer 1994. Haunting Julia, my first ghost story, and incidentally my first full length one act play (very popular with the management, I don’t think due to dwindling bar profits). Jan Bee Brown and Jackie Staines help with the creepy bits splendidly with set and lights. A fairly eerie companion piece to follow, a revival of Patrick Hamilton’s classic Gaslight, directed by Malcolm. Ian Hogg is a wonderfully eccentric, slightly unhinged Inspector Rough. I think on the whole in this version, Mrs Manningham is probably safer with her husband.

A new full-length play by Vanessa Brooks, Penny Blue, we have commissioned from her. Good. Lots of promise. A writer we must continue with and pray we don’t lose to TV (that devourer of raw talent). Be nice to think they ever gave us any of it back but they never do. Then our first co-production with the National Theatre, Mary Morris’s adaptation of Two Weeks with the Queen. How do you sell a kids’ play about AIDS and gay love to adults? Kids no problem. Fortunately they’d read the book. But adults?

Winter 1994/5. Opens with Staff Director, Steve Hirst’s first main house production of Romeo and Juliet which more or less convinces me that when we next do Shakespeare it has to be on a larger scale. We cover an area where Shakespeare is (comparatively) presented so rarely that we ought to try and get as near the real thing as we can next time. No more of these studio scale productions. No reflection on Steve, but next time big or not at all.

Later, U.S. star Judd Hirsch arrives, 60 years old and with energy for 15 twenty year olds. Four weeks into rehearsal, I am exhausted. Come back One Over The Eight cast, all is forgiven. Judd, it transpires, is not only interested in but is also an expert on everything you care to mention. He is forgiven because of his electrifying performance as Eddie in Herb Gardner’s Conversations With My Father. The spirit of Gambon is abroad again. Only difference is Judd actually likes the round. Indeed he prefers it. Hooray, a convert.

Finally, the rowdy delights of the Christmas show, this year The Musical Jigsaw Play in which, once again, John Pattison and I are back in harness. More wild young things. This time a punk rock and roll band. I resolve to lie down for Christmas. The season finishes with Malcolm’s production of Oleanna. He bravely holds discussions after the shows which the audiences seem to adore. Only trouble is all the women stick up for the man in the play and all the men stick up for the woman. There’s nowt so queer as folk. At least Scarborough folk. I think Mamet would have been rather startled.

Summer 1995. And almost up to date. John and I again in harness with our latest effort, A Word From Our Sponsor. This will later transfer to the Minerva Theatre at Chichester. We are never really happy with it and the whole affair is irreparably marred by the sudden, shocking death of Sophie Winter midway through the run. We are all totally stunned. Few of us have ever experienced anything like it. I feel the play, warts and all, will remain in a drawer for a very long time after this.

Then Steve Hirst’s production of Misery which rather sums up the mood of the building. Nonetheless it does work, good production, good set and Jane Hollowood delightfully barking mad as the deranged nurse. Then Malcolm’s elegant production of For Services Rendered (Maugham) and Vanessa Brooks’ second full length for us, Let’s Pretend. We rather rushed her with this one and vow not to do that again to any writer. Nonetheless Let’s Pretend is the most successful of the season’s shows so far.

Winter 1995/96. Here we are in the last season. How odd. I have long ago done my last show here. [6] So has Malcolm, as Director anyway, with Bennett’s Talking Heads. Kate Valentine at the time of writing has ingeniously staged the intricacies of a four-handed Hard Times and is now launching into Grimm Tales.

We are nearly at the end of an era. Doesn’t twenty years go quickly? I look for lessons to learn from all of this to take to our new home.

Fact. If possible do only the work that you passionately want to do. Be prepared occasionally, though, for audiences not always to share your passion. Then again, if you find yourself doing work you don’t feel passionately about, which happens, be prepared occasionally for audiences to love it. That’s just the perverse way things are so don’t be too disappointed.

Just look forward to the times when their passion and yours coincide. For that’s when theatre gets really exciting. [7]

Alan Ayckbourn, 1996

Annotations by Simon Murgatroyd M.A.

[1] As recounted in the first part, between 1986 and 1988 Alan Ayckbourn took a sabbatical from Scarborough to become a Company Director at the National Theatre. Although he stayed Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round during this period, Robin Herford was appointed Co-Artistic Director to run the company on a day-to-day basis.

[2] Caroline Smith was actually the Director of Productions at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1971. This annually appointed position from 1967 to 1972 was – in all but name – the role of Artistic Director of the company. The annual appointment ended in 1972 when Alan Ayckbourn was officially appointed Artistic Director.

[3] When first produced in 1989 at the Bolton Octagon (and then with revivals at the New Vic and Scarborough, Jim Cartwright’s play was originally titled TO, before being altered by the playwright to Two which it is now performed as.

[4] A remarkable cast, One Over The Eight included not only Saskia Wickham but very early performances by Mark Addy and David Harewood who would go onto enormous screen and stage success. Sadly, the identity of the actor arrested has been lost over time.

[5] Stephen Sondheim apparently visited Scarborough on the premise of meeting Alan to potentially work on a musical together. Sadly, this never came to pass.

[6] The last production at Westwood to be directed by Alan was a late-night production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, staged during August 1995.

[7] The final performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round was a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves, directed by Robin Herford, on 3 February 1996. The company then transferred to the £5.2m conversion of Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema into the Stephen Joseph Theatre, which opened on 24 April 1996 with Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, By Jeeves. Alan, who was appointed Artistic Director at the Library Theatre in 1972 would go on to serve as Artistic Director of the company until 31 March 2009. He was Artistic Director of the company for four years at the Library and for 13 years at the SJT, but the largest portion of his time as Artistic Director was the 20 years with the company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Westwood. In recent years, the playwright has spoken of these two decades being his favourite time with the company and his favourite of the three venues.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s