Simon Murgatroyd – Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist & Professional Writer
I'm Simon Murgatroyd, the playwright Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist and a professional writer. I've worked for Alan Ayckbourn since 2005 and was also responsible for creating his official website www.alanayckbourn.net in 2001, which I continue to run and write for to this day. I've been writing professionally since the age of 21 and have been published around world as well as being the author of the book 'Unseen Ayckbourn'.
As we’ve previously noted, Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. In this column, we’re going to look at several items held in Archive pertaining to the classic play.
How the Other Half Loves premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 31 July 1969 and was Alan Ayckbourn seventh play for the venue (and his ninth play in total). Alan had been appointed Director of Productions for the season and directed the majority of plays that year – this is arguably the first of Alan’s many ‘rep’ companies in Scarborough.
The photograph is a a relatively rare image from the world premiere production, directed by Alan. It features the entire cast including Elisabeth Sladen (far left) who would go onto fame in the BBC series Doctor Who as Sarah Jane Smith as well as Stephanie Turner (third from left), who would have great success as actor and director on stage as well as on television – some readers may recall her as the original Juliet Bravo.
The photo offers one of the clearest views of Alan’s composite set design and the infamous dinner sequence in which two dinner parties play out in two flats on two different nights. It’s a favourite image from Alan’s early plays in that it’s a very rare case insight into the layout of an Ayckbourn in-the-round production. Very little survives regarding how Alan staged his plays in-the-round during the 1950s and 1960s, so images like this are always important for anyone researching Ayckbourn during this period.
The second item is a piece of correspondence between Alan’s agent, Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay and Alan, discussing the same scene. Within it, she highlights how difficult she perceives the scene may be to stage and whether it will confuse the audience: time has proven that audiences have no difficulty appreciating the scene and it is regarded as one of the most famous scenes in Alan Ayckbourn’s play canon. The letter also refers to the ’60s theatre impressario Peter Bridge, who produced Relatively Speaking and How the Other Half Loves in the West End.
Bridge was responsible for the casting of the famed Robert Morley in the West End premiere of How the Other Half Loves and, thus, must shouldera lot of the blame for what was to follow. Morley – as the previous article on the blog explores – was a huge stage and screen star, but who was wont to take enormous liberties with the source material to better suit what he felt was funny. In the case of How the Other Half Loves, it completely unbalanced what was written as an ensemble piece and led to the play being regarded as little more than a frivolous farce for many years; fortunately its reputation was salvaged and its qualities better appreciated subsequently.
Morley’s appeal – particularly as a huge box office draw – can be seen in the next two pieces. A flyer for the West End production, in which it can be safely assumed that Morley is the sole reason anyone would want to see the play! At least, Alan is credited although it is in association with Relatively Speaking just to emphasise he’s not a complete unknown. Given Morley’s role of Frank Foster has no more lines than anyone else in the actual play, one can imagine why Alan recalls being physically sick during rehearsals in response to how Morley deformed the play. If you look closely, you can see the credits include Brian Miller – Elisabeth Sladen’s husband. He appeared in the world premiere production of How the Other Half Loves at the Library Theatre and is the first actor to transfer in an Ayckbourn play from Alan’s home theatre into the West End.
The second related piece is the – extremely pink – cover of the programme for the first Australian production of an Ayckbourn play. Following the closure of How the Other Half Loves in the West End in 1962 after 869 performances, Morley persuaded the producers to take the play on tour to Canada and Australia – despite neither country having been exposed to Ayckbourn in any significant way. But then this wasn’t about Alan as the programme cover from the Australian leg of the tour demonstrates. It makes it very clear what the sole reason for seeing this play is as can be seen from the many pictures of Mr Robert Morley and not even a passing mention of the playwright!
Which does lead us to a rare example of one of my least favourite items in the Ayckbourn Archive! Back in the 1970s, it was obviously possible not to credit the playwright on the cover of the programme. Not something which would be approved today. However, it can happen and in 2009 Alan Ayckbourn revived How the Other Half Loves for its fortieth anniversary at his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Somehow the programme managed to omit Alan’s writing credit not only on the programme cover, but also the title page and the credits page – quite an achievement! Only two-thirds of the way through does Alan get a writing credit in his biography for one of his most famous works. Naturally, it’s the one part of the programme he wrote himself.
As can be imagined, Alan was not terribly happy with the Press & Marketing Manager – and were it any other theatre, one presumes such a blatant breach of the license would have had more severe repercussions! Which just goes to show how essential it is to proof-read if you don’t want to face the ire of playwrights and Archivists in the decades to come.
Dear Uncle is Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. It has just opened at the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, in its first major revival since its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2012.
The revival of Dear Uncle is extremely apt given that Alan relocated the play’s action to the Lake District during the 1930s making the Theatre by the Lake the perfect venue for the revival. To mark the production, this is a reproduction of an interview of mine with Alan for the world premiere offering a bit of insight and background to the play.
Simon Murgatroyd: Dear Uncle was originally commissioned for the West End, how did that come about? Alan Ayckbourn: Dear Uncle was commissioned in late 2008 by the producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers. I got a phone call the day after The Norman Conquests opened at the Old Vic. David had the director Matthew Warchus in the office with him and was quite excited by the thought of doing a Chekhov revival because Matthew had said to him, he had approached The Norman Conquests as if they were Chekhov. The conversation then went in reverse with Matthew saying he’d like to do a Chekhov as an Alan Ayckbourn play. So they asked me to do a version of Uncle Vanya and I said: “Wait a minute, there are some very, very good versions of Uncle Vanya, what do you want mine to be?” David just said: “I’d like it to be you” and then Matthew chimed in: “Don’t make it too Russian!” I said: “OK, I’ll do that.”
What led to the play being premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre rather than the West End? There was supposed to be this exciting cast being set up for the West End – Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott – but Matthew Warchus got more commitments and we were just waiting. Matthew eventually said to David Pugh, I feel terrible about this as we got the ball rolling, why don’t you ask Alan if he’d like to do it in Scarborough.
Have you had any previous experience of the play? Uncle Vanya is one of my favourite plays. It’s a lovely piece. It was a play I’d directed in 1972 in Scarborough and liked very much from one of my great all-time heroes.
Did you enjoy writing it? As you can appreciate, my version was written quite a long time ago, so when we recently read for the auditions – which are the very first time you hear it read out loud by professional actors – hearing it brought back all the fun because it was quite fun writing it.
Did you have any trepidation about adapting such a classic play? One always has trepidations. The closer you get to the original writer the more nervous you become, because you feel you may just be treading on his heels. So my first instinct was to move as far geographically away from Russia as possible; staying within my own field of knowledge. I’m always a tremendous believer in never writing something which you know nothing about.
The result is the Lake District in 1935. How did you end up there? Having plumped fairly randomly on the Lake District as a setting in 1935, I discovered during research there were these foolish policies of replacing the Lake District’s trees with pine trees in the hope that no-one would notice and therefore destroying most of the natural wildlife that goes with it! I found myself in a local Lake District’s hornet’s nest as there were a lot of people getting quite agitated at that time. I thought that’s quite interesting as in the original play, there was this – at the time – slightly quirky man who had a passion for forests and didn’t want to see them destroyed; I think some divine spirit was guiding me! That particular theme, of course, has grown increasingly relevant and urgent.
Other than the time and setting, did you deviate from the play? The one deviation I was very conscious of making was the character of Sonya who I made younger than normally, in the original she was nearing what would be described as spinsterhood and in love with a man who was older than her and never really noticed her; rather cruelly I think. I made her a 16 year old schoolgirl who has everything to live for. She develops the same sort of passion for Doctor Ash as Sonya did for Astrov in the original, except in this case it’s got that comic twist that he never really considers her. This rather mawkish schoolgirl is pining around him and he can’t think of anything to say to her except how are things at school? She’s agonised but I think in a sense that makes her slightly less tragic and the emphasis is very much thrown onto Uncle Marcus.
Your writing is frequently compared to Chekhov, do you think that’s a fair comparison in terms of what you’re trying to achieve? In that Chekhov tried to address a rather broad canvas of emotions, I think it’s a fair comparison. But the knowledge of his plays nudges me to be more bold – just to mix darkness and light, but I guess that was always in me.
It must be difficult knowing how this play will be received, what are your hopes for the play? I hope there’s an audience out there who will also come blind to it so one can say afterward to them, ‘you know you’ve been watching a Russian classic!’ When you go to see a Chekhov play, you don’t know what you’re going to get because there are so many ways of handling it; it could be a very agonising evening with a lot of breast-beating or it could be an evening where it’s painfully funny. It all depends on the approach. At best, I think it’s a mixture of both. Dear Uncle is my own version and I still feel it’s very much Chekhov because nothing is ever forced out of its natural role. There are plenty of versions of Uncle Vanya you can see and if you want to see one that’s more accurate, then there are those. But this is my take on the play.
Dear Uncle, directed by Tom Littler, can be seen in rep at the Theatre by the Lake until 2 November 2019. Further details can be found at the theatre’s website here.
On 31 July 1969, Alan Ayckbourn unveiled his ninth play to the world. It would become a classic of his play canon and one of his most loved and produced works.
Today – on its 50th anniversary – How the Other Half Loves is regarded as a seminal early Ayckbourn work and is frequently revived by both professional and amateur companies, not just in the UK but around the world.
To celebrate the play’s anniversary, we’re going to explore the creation of the play and its subsequent transfer to the West End, where it earned an undeserved reputation whilst also enjoying phenomenal success.
The roots of How the Other Half Loves go back to 1965 and Alan’s seventh play, Relatively Speaking. This became Alan’s first West End success when it opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1967 and thrust Alan very quickly into the public limelight. The success of the play, which ran for a year, led to considerable interest in what the then 28 year old playwright would do next.
This success came when Alan was not actually working in the theatre. He was employed by the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer based in Leeds, having taken the job in 1965 to escape the theatre following the disastrous reception to his first West End transfer, Mr Whatnot. It would be 1969 before Alan began to move more decisively back into theatre despite the success of Relatively Speaking in the West End.
In 1967, the successor to Relatively Speaking emerged and premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. It was called The Sparrow and was completely different to Relatively Speaking. Whilst that was regarded as a high comedy, The Sparrow was a domestic comedy which at times almost veered into Pinter territory. Alan’s London producer – Peter Bridge – wasn’t impressed and although he optioned it, he did not produce the play; in a letter to his agent – Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay from the time, Alan wondered if Bridge was “waiting for an exact carbon copy of Relatively Speaking.” This was not something Alan was interested in.
What he was interested in doing – and which he has continued to do throughout his writing career – is to find new ways to tell stories. In the case of How the Other Half Loves, this was the rather remarkable idea of having two overlaid locations enabling events in different locations – and even different times – to be played simultaneously. And whilst the idea of a composite set may not sound terribly original, you would be hard pressed to find evidence of anyone prior to 1969 using the device as Alan had done. Indeed, no-one has made a credible argument at all for its use before Alan Ayckbourn.
The idea for the composite set was, in part, inspired by where Alan was living at the time: a block of flats in Leeds. He realised each flat was identically designed and that frequently – due to the interior design – different flats had very similar layouts; one evening when visiting a neighbour, he apparently forgot whose flat he was in! This led to the idea of overlaying two spaces on the same set enabling the opportunity to explore the use of both space and time on stage; How the Other Half Loves most famous scene involves two dinner parties in different places on different days running simultaneously. Other influences in shaping the play, according to Alan, were: “being drawn into the comet’s tail of somebody else’s breaking marriage” and a desire to “write a play which highlighted different and contrasting social lifestyles.”
The play was also shaped by Alan taking on the role of Director of Productions at the Library Theatre for the 1969 summer season; this would eventually lead to him being appointed Artistic Director in 1972. Responsible for the programming and running of the company, he created – essentially – his first of many rep companies at the Library Theatre and later the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It’s actually a remarkable company which included Stephanie Turner, Bob Peck, Elisabeth Sladen and Brian Miller among others. As he directed four of the season’s five plays – including How the Other Half Loves – he was essentially casting for himself and choosing the actors he wanted to work with for the summer.
It’s also worth noting that by accepting the position, Alan was not only cementing himself as the spiritual successor to the company’s founder and his most influential mentor, Stephen Joseph, but also ensuring Stephen’s legacy would continue. The Library Theatre had been struggling for several years and when Alan accepted the role of Director of Productions, he knew the theatre’s position was so precarious that the board could not afford to pay him for his new play, instead offering him free accommodation in a flat for the summer.
During this period, Alan juggled his time between his work at the BBC Leeds and Scarborough mixing the two jobs as best he could. The new play, How the Other Half Loves, was announced in May on posters for the season declaring: “World premiere of a new comedy by the author of the West End hit Relatively Speaking. This is his sixth play written specially for Scarborough.” With no actual play-script to guide them (Alan still at the point of writing his plays to the latest possible deadline, generally the day before rehearsals began…), there was little to do but trade on Alan’s name and the success of Relatively Speaking – although it should also be noted this was Alan’s seventh play written for Scarborough.
How the Other Half Loves opened on 31 July 1969 at the Library Theatre, directed by Alan and performed – as would be expected for Alan – in-the-round. The next day, the Scarborough Evening News declared the play “hilarious” and whilst other reviews of the play are scarce, Alan noted in correspondence: “Reviews have been pretty good – Guardian (aside from a rather snide sentence), Yorkshire Post, Express and the locals.” The premiere was also attended by Alan’s London producer Peter Bridge who told him it had “all the makings of another Relatively Speaking“; although he was not quick to option the play and his later actions would betray his discomfort with certain aspects of it.
Bridge’s reaction to the play was predicted by Peggy after she had read the script. She wondered – correctly – whether it was suitable for the proscenium arch and, as a result, whether Peter Bridge would be genuinely interested in the piece. In hindsight, this was perhaps the first indication that Peter Bridge’s tenure as Alan’s producer was not going to be a long term affair. In fact, it would unravel throughout the course of How the Other Half Loves and it was the final Ayckbourn play he would produce.
One lovely little aside to the story of How the Other Half Loves premiere production in Scarborough is it also marked Alan’s final – unintended – performance as a professional actor. Alan had retired from acting in 1964, but soon after How the Other Half Loves opened, he received an unexpected call at the BBC from his stage-manager. Jeremy Franklin, the actor playing Frank Foster, had slipped a disc and was in Scarborough Hospital in traction for two weeks. Alan rushed back to Scarborough and took to the stage for that evening’s performance, somewhat ironically having to read from the book. All seemed fine until, alarmingly, as the play reached its climax Alan discovered his script was missing pages. “I distinguished myself… by actually losing several pages during the action and having to ad-lib a scene. My fellow actors confronted by the sight of the author-director in full-flow, spouting fresh dialogue, stood uncertainly about convinced that these must be new re-writes about which they hadn’t been told. I later rushed off, jotted it down and it’s in there somewhere to this day.”
The next day, Alan learnt the part afresh and performed it for the remaining three performances that week. Fortunately, the play was in repertory and was not due to return for another two weeks, by which point Jeremy had recovered and returned to the role. It was only four performances, but five years after he had officially retired from acting, How the Other Half Loves proved to be Alan’s ultimate acting swan-song.
There was also pressing concern for Alan as by the time the play had finished its run at the Library Theatre in September 1969, Peter Bridge had still not optioned the play despite his apparent earlier approval of the play. Alan was worried this play would be lost like The Sparrow and Standing Room Only before it, both of which Bridge had optioned but never produced. In correspondence with Peggy, Alan wrote: “People I know reckon it could be a winner and I’m very anxious it shouldn’t go the way of The Sparrow, Standing Room Only or even Mr Whatnot!” In an attempt to mollify Alan, Bridge signed a contract on 19 September but was then ominously silent about his intentions, leading Alan to despair in November that he could “only assume that he’s cooled off on this one as well…. I must say I find the ecstatic almost festive air of congratulations which surrounded Relatively Speaking in bewildering contrast to the total disinterest for the latest one.”
The problem was, as Peggy had predicted, Bridge was having problems persuading London managements the play could work in the proscenium arch. Even its eventual director Robin Midgley had major problems with the play’s mechanics as Alan recalls: “Robin had spent about 10 days drawing up designs to see how he could do this scene. He looked at me with a haunted expression and said: ‘All right – I give up. How do you do the dinner scene?’ I said 1,2,3,4 – like that – and Robin said: ‘Why didn’t you put it in the script?’” Eventually, Bridge, Peggy and Alan agreed that the best solution was to do a try-out to prove the play could work – even though Peggy wasn’t convinced that Bridge now had the finances to mount a London production should one ever be agreed.
By February 1970, Bridge had organised a venue for the try-out at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, with Robin Midgley directing. The production opened on 19 March and was an instant success. The critics gave it a thumbs-up, their general mood summed up by The Observer’s critique that the play was “even funnier than his Relatively Speaking which is to call it very funny indeed” and that London managements were at fault for not picking up the play immediately. While the critics applauded, Alan was still not satisfied with the play and altered the ending for a second time, having already altered it after its initial run in Scarborough.
The play’s success in Leicester was undeniable, but Bridge still had issues with both the set and the cast. Although to some degree, these were also echoed by Alan who felt there were “certain errors in casting, directing, setting and in some cases writing.” Alan believed the play could work though, more so than Bridge who seemed to be trying to justify the play when he wrote “the show has worked twice which means we can approach it with considerably more confidence.”
Again, the producer’s actions spoke louder than words as by the end of April, there was still no news on a London production and the option on the play was due for renewal. Peggy reluctantly agreed to extend it until October 1970, but warned Bridge it would not be extended any further. He, meanwhile, had began negotiations with another producer Eddie Kulukundis to help finance the show eventually leading to them becoming co-managers of the London production.
With finances now in place, work began in earnest on producing the play in the West End – but not without casualties. The success of the Leicester production was not enough to save any of the cast or the designer, Franco Colavecchia, who was replaced by Alan Tagg. Bridge also wanted a marquee star for the play and had his eyes set on one of the biggest names in theatre, Robert Morley. Morley was an extremely popular actor who had found fame both on screen and stage and whose presence in a play was guaranteed to draw in the audiences; if only for him rather than the play. Morley was interested but wanted to make changes to the play and so an unimpressed Alan accompanied Bridge and Midgley to the actor’s home in Henley. Morley had an exuberant love of his profession and also strong ideas about comedy, resulting in several forceful suggestions to Alan about how the play could be funnier, including suggestions that Frank should be a flower-arranger rather than a jogger and that he should have a butler. The meeting apparently ended with the following exchange by Alan, which Paul Allen reports in his official biography of Alan, Grinning At The Edge.
Robert Morley: ‘I think I’m losing patience with this little script. I think I want to do something else.’
Alan Ayckbourn: ‘Fine, you do that.’
The bluff called, Alan agreed to several small changes but was dismayed to see that many of Morley’s ideas were incorporated into his final performance anyway. Alan did get his own back eventually though for when the play was eventually published, Alan restored the script to its original state but cheekily noted years later: “Robert Morley was a great ad-libber and history has a way of revenging itself. So within the script are the very best of Robert’s jokes – now claimed as my own.”
From the start of rehearsals, Morley dominated proceedings and was frequently at loggerheads with Midgley as he tried to impose his vision on the play, regardless of whether it was shared by director or author. Morley insisted Joan Tetzel was cast as his wife – who had last appeared in the West End twenty years earlier also as Morley’s wife in The Little Hut – despite the ambiguity she was clearly an American. Yet he soon found himself unable to work with her during rehearsals and she was later recast. His personal views also meant the portrayal of the Fosters was irrevocably damaged anyway as he insisted there should be no marital conflict, despite the obvious fact this was the nub of the play! Alan watched from the sidelines, painfully aware that Morley would be both a huge draw for the box office but that his play was going to be lost along the way.
How the Other Half Loves was launched on a pre-West End tour on 23 June 1970, at the Grand Opera House, Leeds. From there it travelled to Nottingham, Wimbledon and Brighton. It opened at the Lyric Theatre on 5 August 1970 to excellent reviews and stunning box office receipts. Relatively Speaking had been a phenomenal success for Alan, but it would be over-shadowed by the new play. How the Other Half Loves ran for 869 performances until 30 September 1972, before immediately touring to Canada and Australia. In many ways it cemented Alan’s credentials as an exciting and popular playwright, but at what cost?
Morley’s casting has transformed it into the antithesis of an Ayckbourn play; it was now a star vehicle rather than an ensemble piece (and it should be noted that on the page, the character of Frank Foster has no more lines than any of the other characters). Morley’s often unsuitable ad-libbing emphasised the actor and Alan hated the production, even becoming physically sick during one performance. Yet he was not naïve and acknowledged there was trade-off. “Eighty per cent of the audience had paid to see Robert Morley, and I, as an unknown dramatist, had really no right to stand between that process if I wanted to take the money.”
As the noted critic Michael Billington would later argue, the success of this production blighted both the perception of the play’s merits and, arguably, of Alan’s skills as a playwright. The ingenuity of the play was largely ignored by the critics with all attention on Morley and it became considered as a farce and Alan as a successful farceur, a label that would haunt him for many years to come. Only later would critics come to consider the piece on its own terms and discover there was far more to it than a larger than life actor. Morley was unrepentant and later told Alan: “I’ve left a trail of sadder but far, far richer playwrights behind me.”
The play closed in the West End in September 1972 but its success had already led to Alan’s first transfer to Broadway – with Sergeant Bilko star Phil Silvers playing Frank Foster – and huge demand for the piece by rep companies throughout the UK who were soon producing it alongside a major UK tour by the producer Bill kenwright in 1973. The play has continued to be popular ever since and, over the years, has shed the reputation it gained in the West End as a star-driven, rather silly farce into an appreciation of a play which was literally ahead of its time in its concept and which had a far more cutting social commentary than it had previously been given credit for.
This year, its 50th anniversary will be celebrated by Dick & Lottie – the UK’s only company dedicated exclusively to the plays of Alan Ayckbourn – which will be producing the play at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield from 5 – 9 November.
Fifty Years on, How the Other Half Loves has long since secured its place as one of the most significant plays from the first decade of Alan Ayckbourn’s playwriting career.
As Archivist for the Stephen Joseph Theatre – as well as Alan Ayckbourn – I’ve had the pleasure of curating a small exhibition for the SJT about the history of the play in Scarborough. As I was guiding the SJT’s Press Officer – Jeannie Swales – through the exhibition, she revealed something I had never known about the poster for the world premiere of the play.
As anyone who has seen The Woman in Black will know, only two actors are apparently credited in the play: the Actor and Kipps. This has always posed an issue as – SPOILER ALERT – there may be another actor in the play. The acting union Equity, correctly, insists that every actor must be credited – corporeal or incorporeal – which has led to some creative solutions over the years when secrets are meant to be kept from the audience.
What I hadn’t realised is that the poster for the world premiere of The Woman in Black in 1987 very cleverly planted a credit in plain view which has gone unnoticed over the years. The poster – which is a complete step away from the images which have largely come to define The Woman in Black in the West End featuring Kipps’ face in close-up – features the Woman in Black herself.
But look closely and there’s two prominent features in the poster. The woman and a gravestone. If you peer closely at the grave, you can make out the name Jennet Drablow – the name of a character within the play (although not quite accurate) – and, beneath it, another name: ‘Lesley Mead’ [sic]. She is not a character in the play, but an actor with the Scarborough company and, well, I’ll let you put two and two together
Real afficiandoes of The Woman in Black will realise there’s also a mistake here as the name on the grave should read Jennet Humfrye not Jennet Drablow – the surname of Jennet’s mother. The reason for this can be found in the original manuscript held in archive as, within it, Kipps finds a tombstone from which – in the manuscript – he reads ‘D-R-A-Drablow!’ and this must have been the brief given to the poster designer. However, the writer Stephen Mallatratt later realised his mistake for this has then been crossed out by hand and – barely legible – can be read ‘HUMfrye’ handwritten above it. This accounts for the mistake in the poster and, presumably, the mis-spelling of Lesley Meade was due to the designer not checking the name.
Jeannie, who pointed out the Easter Egg in the poster, was the arts reporter for the Scarborough Evening News in 1987 and she wrote the newspaper’s review of The Woman in Black and has also contributed her own memories of the play for the exhibition to sit alongside the review and an interview she did with the play’s writer and adaptor, Stephen Mallatratt.
There is one thing not in the exhibition but which is a nice little addition to this story. On the play’s 10th anniversary, it was agreed the Stephen Joseph Theatre could do a special revival of the play – by this time , The Woman in Black was firmly ensconced in the West End and had not yet begun touring. The 1997 production featured Peter Laird as Kipps and a relative newcomer – as can be seen from his biography here. Hard to imagine this young actor who had made cameos in The Bill and This Life on television would, two decades later, be one of the UK’s most famous actors! Since working at the SJT in 1996 and 1997, Martin Freeman has become famous for his roles as Watson in the acclaimed BBC series Sherlock, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy, Everett Ross in the Black Panther / Marvel movies as well as a score of critically acclaimed film, television and stage roles. The recent acquisition of a considerable number of items from The Scarborough News archive for The Alan Ayckbourn Archive & The Bob Watson Archive also includes this images of Martin Freeman and Peter Laird taken for the newspaper (the original is also featured in the exhibition).
That’s just a few of the gems in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Archive for The Woman in Black, some of which also appear in the small exhibition, which is running until September in the Archive corridor on the first floor of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Everything is drawn from The Bob Watson Archive at the SJT, within which there is an original manuscript from 1987 for The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s original response to Stephen Mallatratt about him adapting the play, original newspaper articles and clippings from 1987 as well as the first ever press-release. There’s also a selection of quite poor photos – the budget was so limited for the original production that there was no money for a professional photographer! – as well as an original poster and programmes. It’s a small but fascinating collection supplemented by material from the SJT’s 1997 and 2015 revivals.
If you’d like to know more about the history of The Woman in Black in Scarborough, why not visit the dedicated section to the play within The SJT section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here. Meanwhile, as the play itself says…
Relatively Speaking is – as all fans of Alan Ayckbourn fans know – his first big play. It’s his first significant success in the West End and helped make Alan a household name during the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s also the play – from an Archivist’s perspective – where things start to get interesting. With an acknowledged success comes more reason to preserve contemporary items relevant to the play, which eventually become part of the Ayckbourn Archive. There are more original cuttings of reviews, programmes, newspaper articles and other ephemera relating to the earliest productions of the play than anything he previously wrote. There is a sense that playwriting is now Alan’s significant career strand – it’s worth remembering that Alan only retired as a professional actor the year before he wrote Relatively Speaking.
Of course, Relatively Speaking was not only exceptionally popular in the West End in 1967 but continues to be popular today and is consistently revived by both professionals and amateurs, so there is a wealth of archival material from its first production at the Library Theatre in 1965 to the present day held in Archive – Salisbury Playhouse recently announced it will be reviving the play in-the-round from 4 – 28 September 2019 and, no doubt, programmes and press cuttings from this production will soon enter the Ayckbourn Archive for posterity.
As a result, it starts becoming more difficult to name my favourite things – as Alan becomes more famous and successful, so there are more items in the Archive to look at and choose from! So I’m limiting myself to three items and the story of one which unfortunately can’t be shown here.
My first item is actually rather famous in itself. Relatively Speaking began its life in 1965 at the Library Theatre as Meet My Father. Two years later, it moved to the West End opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 29 March 1967. Early in its run, it was seen by a rather more established playwright at the time, Noël Coward, who – impressed by what he had seen – sent a telegram of congratulations to its author as Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, notes in Grinning At The Edge.
“A telegram arrived at the BBC in Leeds which Alan assumed to be a practical joke, especially when it turned out there was 14 shillings (70p) to pay for the delivery. It read: DEAR ALAN AYCKBOURN. ALL MY CONGRATULATIONS ON A BEUATIFULLY CONSTRUCTED AND VERY FUNNY PLAY. I ENJOYED EVERY MOMENT OF IT = NOEL COWARD.”
Alan has expanded on this story in the past suggesting he actually threw it into the bin – not believing it was authentic – before receiving a telephone call from the actor Richard Briers, appearing in the play, who had spoken to Coward after seeing the show – at which Alan promptly retrieved the crumpled telegram! The telegram is now safely held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York and is, undoubtedly, one of the most significant holdings in the collection.
My second favourite item is not an obvious choice, as it’s a programme for an amateur production of Relatively Speaking; given there have been thousands of performance of Relatively Speaking since 1965, programmes are not that unusual! However, this one is rather special.
Although Alan Ayckbourn is well-known for directing his own work, he did not direct the world premiere of Relatively Speaking at the Library Theatre nor the West End premiere – directed by Stephen Joseph and Nigel Patrick respectively. Alan did not, in fact, direct Relatively Speaking professionally until 1977 when it was revived at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough. But his first stab at directing what is arguably his most famous work was with an amateur company.
Between 1965 and 1970, Alan worked as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC based in Leeds. During that period he became patron of Leeds Art Theatre (for whom he directed Mr Whatnot as noted in a previous blog). In 1970, he directed Relatively Speaking for the first time with Leeds Art Theatre at Leeds Civic Theatre. It’s a rather nice oddity to think of a nationally famous playwright at that point (and about to become even more famous with the West End premiere of How The Other Half Loves later that year) directing a local amateur company in one of his most famous plays.
Moving slightly back in time and Relatively Speaking‘s place not only as Alan’s first major West End success, but also the first of his plays to be seen on television. On 21 July 1967, the BBC broadcast a 50 minute excerpt from the West End production of Relatively Speaking marking the first time any of Alan’s work had been seen in a substantive form on television. Sadly this does not survive in archive nor does a full length adaptation of the play produced for the BBC’s Play of the Month in 1969 starring Donald Sinden and Celia Johnson and directed by Herbert Wise (who would go on to direct The Norman Conquests for ITV in 1977).
Although the television adaptation does not survive, seven mint-condition publicity stills from the broadcast were recently rediscovered within the Ayckbourn Archive and offer a fascinating insight into the production. Whilst they will never replace the opportunity of seeing how Relatively Speaking was adapted, they do offer a chance to get a feel for the actors and the production values (and issues such as the 15 year age discrepancy between Donald Sinden’s Philip and Celia Johnson’s Sheila leading to, according to Alan, a conscious decision by Herbert Wise to film most of the production in long-shot). As an archivist I try to be optimistic and hope nothing is completely lost; these photos are a good example of that, turning up 50 years after the broadcast and preserving some of its history in a small way.
And so to my final favourite – and unseen – item from the archive. When Alan Ayckbourn first wrote Relatively Speaking (or Meet My Father as it was), he delivered it to the Library Theatre’s Artistic Director and the plays’ director, Stephen Joseph, who declared it too long and promptly decided to cut the play, as Alan Ayckbourn records.
“[Stephen Joseph had cut] rather a lot of important bits, because he didn’t seem to mind where it was cut as long as it was cut. When he did this you would point that there were some important bits of information missing, but he’d just say: ‘Don’t worry, people. They’ll follow it.’ and they generally did. It was very good, and Peter Bridge came up with the director Nigel Patrick and they declared it was great.”
Alan has noted that Stephen would draw thick marker lines through swathes of dialogue in the original manuscript; all of which sounded apocryphal and more of a good story than hard fact. And then, in 2007, Doctor Paul Elsam discovered an original manuscript of Meet My Father in which, literally, swathes of pages have thick marker pen lines through the dialogue. It’s a fascinating document to see.
This then formed the basis of a project I undertook to reconstruct the play as originally performed in 1965 leading to a manuscript which is approximately a third shorter than the play we know today. Although only created for research purposes – and it will never be allowed to be performed – it is a personal project of which I’m very fond.
Of course, what Alan doesn’t mention about Peter Bridge and Nigel Patrick is that when they asked for the play to read, Alan gave them the uncut original manuscript rather than Stephen Joseph’s edited script. They didn’t seem to notice and it all worked out rather well in the end for everyone concerned.
Last Thursday I had the privilege of hosting the first public performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s fourth play Standing Room Only since 1966.
The hugely memorable evening saw Dick & Lottie theatre company give a rehearsed reading of the play at The Square Chapel, Halifax – and complements to everyone at The Square Chapel for helping to make the event so special. The professional company – Leslie Davidoff, Leah Gray-Scaife, Maria Sykes, Hannah Sims, Darren Jeffries & Joe Geddes – all did a great job under the eye of the company’s director John Cotgrave. A call out to the specially composed music of Paul Chamberlain and Richard McArtney’s lovely throwback-futuristic costumes.
It was a unique and exciting opportunity to offer a chance to talk about and experience a play that had never been expected to be performed again – and very much a treat for all the Ayckbourn aficionados who attended. One of the questions I was asked was, after a successful event like this, what happens to the play next? In this day and age, there is perhaps the expectation that a successful evening will lead to further events or an extended life for the play.
So let’s tie that into the broader context of what the position is regarding Alan Ayckbourn’s early withdrawn plays and what their status is. To focus briefly on Standing Room Only, it’s had its brief moment in the sun and will not be seen again – at least not in any foreseeable future. The script has now been returned to Archive and it will once again be marked ‘not for production’. There will be no repeat performance nor new events even with the success of the event at The Square Chapel; it was always designed to be what it was – a unique celebration of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing.
Back to the broader picture and Standing Room Only is one of six of Alan’s eight earliest plays which have been withdrawn. The other plays are The Square Cat (1959), Love After All (1959), Dad’s Tale (1960), Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and The Sparrow (1967). What does withdrawn actually mean? Essentially, it means the playwright has decided they are not available for any kind of production – professional, amateur or rehearsed reading – nor will they be published or reproduced. They are held in archive and can only be accessed through the archives where they are held.
So the first question is, why has Alan Ayckbourn withdrawn six of his first ten plays? It’s actually rather simple, as the playwright has noted he was a young writer learning his craft and, as a result, wouldn’t want his early efforts to be back in the public eye nor does he believe anyone would really want to see the majority of them! There’s no deep reason, just the understandable position that he doesn’t believe his early works are terribly good and that there are a lot better plays to perform or look at.
So what happens / has happened to the early plays? For many years, there was the apocraphyl story that Alan was trying to destroy all copies of his early work. He wasn’t really, but it was more than enough to put people off searching for them – which I suspect was one of the reasons Alan said he was trying to destroy them. When I became Archivist in 2005, it was believed his second play, Love After All, was completely lost and there were doubts that his fifth play, Christmas V Mastermind, still existed. As it turns out, all Alan Ayckbourn’s plays exist in at least one original manuscript and all his withdrawn plays were discovered to be held in the Lord Chamberlain’s Collection at the British Library; this being due to all plays prior to 1968 having to be submitted and approved for performance.
So the early plays have been withdrawn from circulation and archived; which means they are available to be researched but not to be published or performed. The University of York also has a complete collection of early plays in The Ayckbourn Archive (either original manuscripts or copies) and various other collections such as The John Rylands Library, Manchester, and the University of Staffordshire hold copies of individual early plays such as The Square Cat.
What does that mean regarding access? Theoretically anyone can go to the University of York or the British Library and read any of the withdrawn plays in situ. They are there for research purposes, which – arguably – is the only wider interest these plays should attract by allowing researchers studying or writing about Alan’s plays to assess the early works and their place in his progress as a writer. They can’t be removed from these collections though nor can they be copied without the permission of the playwright (which isn’t going to be given). But if you’re interested enough, you can contact the archives in York or London and arrange to read these plays. But that is the closest they will get to a wider public view.
The final question, I suppose, is could the plays ever be released for production or be published? That’s very doubtful and would go against everything the playwright has said and intends. It seems very doubtful the playwright would agree to allow anything but the briefest public glimpses of the plays in the years to come. Odd extracts may be performed occasionally – on 28 September, Alan will be presenting the evening 8o Years Young at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and there will be an extract from Dad’s Tale performed during that evening. But anything more substantial than that is unlikely. The permission for Dick & Lottie to perform Standing Room Only was a one-off made possible because of the collaboration between his Archivist and a company celebrating its fifteenth anniversary and entirely dedicated to Alan’s work. But these are exceptions and events approved by and close to the playwright himself. Any other attempts at production seem highly unlikely now or in the foreseeable future.
And what is the foreseeable future? Well, that’s where copyright comes into force. Anyone pinning their hopes on that is either very young or expecting some massive leaps in medical science and longevity (such as Alan predicts in his play Surprises). Currently, literary works in the UK (and the USA) are protected for 70 years until after the author’s death. As Alan Ayckbourn is still very much alive and writing, it’s thus not something that is going to have to be dealt with for quite a long time – and certainly something I’m not going to be dealing with during my lifetime!
Were Alan a less prolific writer, there might be arguments that everything should be made available – no matter the quality or even the writer’s wishes. However, given that he’s written 86 plays and counting, there’s a very strong argument that there’s still more than enough to keep ardent researchers and fans of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays busy for quite a while. I certainly think so – and I spend every day working on and researching Alan’s plays and there’s more than enough research to last me more years than I can imagine!
Our regular delve into some of my things in The Alan Ayckbourn Archive skips a play this week to arrive at Mr Whatnot.
Premiered at the Victoria Theatre in 1963, Mr Whatnot is a notable play for serval significant reasons. It marked the first time Alan Ayckbourn had directed the world premiere off one of his plays and it was the first of his plays to transfer to the West End – of which more later.
My favourite item in the Ayckbourn Archive though is derived not from the world or the West End premiere of Mr Whatnot, but rather an amateur production of rather unusual providence.
In 1965, following some traumatic reviews of the West End premiere of Mr Whatnot, Alan took a job at the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer based in Leeds for five years. Initially, he had no thought of writing for the theatre again, but his mentor Stephen Joseph fortunately soon changed his mind about that.
Whilst in Leeds, Alan discovered an aspiring actor called Robert Peck who he employed in a number of roles for the radio and, later, for two years at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. The same Robert Peck who would become rather more famous as Bob Peck, star of the classic BBC thriller Edge of Darkness, a Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre veteran and – amongst much television and several films – the game hunter in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
At the time, Bob was a member of the amateur Leeds Art Theatre of which Alan was the patron and, in 1968, asked Alan if he would do the company a favour and help with the new production as the planned one had fallen through. Alan agreed to both provide a play and direct it, choosing Mr Whatnot. He cast Bob Peck in the titular role as the mute piano tuner, Mint. In the Ayckbourn Archive, there are several photographs from rehearsals from this production including this favourite with a pensive Alan looking on at Bob Peck.
It’s a favourite photo of mine providing as it does a very rare look at Alan involved in an amateur drama company as well as two men who had huge respect for each other and their respective work. Alan would reunite with Bob in 1985 when he took the lead role of Guy in Alan’s production of A Chorus of Disapproval for the National Theatre.
Whilst we’re looking at Mr Whatnot, it’s always been a source of fascination that the West End premiere starred the British comedian Ronnie Barker as Lord Slingsby-Craddock; at this point Barker was beginning to make a name for himself but had not yet risen to huge fame. Although the West End production was a disaster (the shortest run of any Ayckbourn play in the West End – including the more famous musical Jeeves), Barker and Alan hit it off and would work together again – albeit rather surreptitiously.
Barker so enjoyed playing the character of Slingsby-Craddock that he essentially asked Alan to write him into his 1969 TV series Hark At Barker. Alan, under contract for the BBC, was contractually not allowed to write for the comedy show as it was on ITV However,using the pseudonym of Peter Caulfield, he wrote for both series of Hark At Barker penning the links between sketches which featured Lord Rustless; whom Barker had created several years earlier inspired by his work in Mr Whatnot.
Alan’s significant contribution can be seen in the frontispiece to the script for the first episode of series one of the show which notes ‘Hark At Barker by Peter Caulfield and various authors’; most of the various authors were pseudonyms for Ronnie Barker apparently! Barker himself talks about the Alan’s connection and contribution to the character of Rustless in his authorised biography.
“Absolutely. He [Slingsby-Craddock] was Lord Rustless mark one, definitely…. When I did Hark at Barker – that was him, albeit with sketches. Alan Ayckbourn wrote all the links for that show but I don’t think he admits it. He called himself Peter Caulfield, but I don’t know whether he would like people to know that was him or not. He liked the character in Mr Whatnot, so he knew what the character was about. Rustless was really giving a lecture to the audience on a subject, such as ‘communication’ or ‘servants’ or something and he would illustrate it with sketches, which enabled me to pay lots of different parts.”
It’s a fascinating insight into a rarely known aspect of Alan’s career not least because it marks Alan’s only venture into television. Alan has been committed to theatre throughout his life and, unlike most of his contemporaries, has never been persuaded to move into television or film; even for the filmed adaptations of his plays, he has minimal involvement at best. Aside from a short screenplay for a play for television – Service Not Included – Alan’s only little known foray into screenwriting was Hark At Barker.
Despite its West End battering, Mr Whatnot would become a success for Alan and was revived successfully by the author in Scarborough in 1976 with many well-received productions – both professional and amateur – over the subsequent years. As it stands, it is the earliest of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays which has been published and which is available for performance.
One of the roles of an Archivist is to shed light on what has been forgotten or lost over time. When a theatre, such as the Stephen Joseph Theatre, has been running for more than six decades, it’s not unusual that some aspects of its history have been forgotten.
Occasionally, that includes significant contributions such is the case with the playwright David Campton; arguably the theatre’s earliest success. Whilst the late writer is still known today, his relationship with the Stephen Joseph Theatre and his significant role in its early development has all but been forgotten – and is certainly unmarked within the theatre itself.
When we talk about the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its most notable protégé, we tend to think about Alan Ayckbourn. A playwright whose career has spanned more than six decades, has won numerous awards, been produced around the world and is generally recognised as one of the most significant English playwrights of the late 20th century. He is also the man most visibly associated with continuing Stephen Joseph‘s legacy and championing the causes – new writing and theatre-in-the-round – upon which he founded the Scarborough company on.
Yet, arguably, there is another Stephen Joseph protégé who also achieved considerable success during his life and also played a significant role in keeping the – then – Library Theatre – alive. David Campton was the company’s first resident playwright who Stephen believed had the greatest chance of becoming the break-out talent from the Library Theatre. Indeed David received early notices from several noted critics favourably comparing him to Harold Pinter.
As it was, Alan Ayckbourn became the breakout star of the Library Theatre in 1967 when his play Relatively Speaking opened in the West End, several months prior to Stephen Joseph’s death. Yet although he never matched Alan’s rare success, David did become a notable and respected playwright in his own respect, constantly writing throughout his life, constantly produced and still performed to this day.
But his relationship with Stephen Joseph, Alan Ayckbourn and the Library Theatre has all but been lost to time. This is that story.
When he founded the Library Theatre in 1955, one of Stephen Joseph’s stated intentions was to encourage new plays by new playwrights. It is something which is ingrained in the company and which continues to this day.
The inaugural season featured new plays by four writers of which three were women – astonishing for any British theatre in 1955. The fourth writer was David Campton, who would become the company’s first resident writer and also the company’s theatre manager during its most difficult years.
David first came to Stephen’s attention during a playwriting course during the early 1950s. Keen to encourage a promising new writer, Stephen continued to work with David and in 1955 invited him to write a play for the new Library Theatre in Scarborough. This play, Dragons Are Dangerous, began a pattern in which David had at least one play produced every year at the Library Theatre until Stephen’s death in 1965; making him the venue’s most prolific writer during this period. He also had more plays directed by Stephen than anyone else.
Their strong relationship had a profound impact on David’s writing; Stephen encouraged David’s early ‘Comedy of Menace’ plays, which led to favourable comparisons with Harold Pinter. Stephen firmly believed David had the potential to be a success and went to great lengths to promote the writer, even in London. While he did not achieve the recognition Stephen felt he deserved, his plays were well-received by many influential critics including John Russell Taylor, who featured David in his seminal book on British theatre during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Anger And After. In an article in The Times in 1961, he argued the playwright’s lack of recognition was due entirely to geography: “Clearly it is Mr Campton’s misfortune that he lives in the North, and has been produced primarily by a northern company, since up to now it has prevented him from receiving the attention he should have.”
David, like so many others at the Library Theatre, was not just a writer. He was the venue’s general manager between 1959 and 1963 and acted in 23 plays including the world premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s first two plays, The Square Cat and Love After All. Indeed between 1959 and 1961, the pair were responsible for writing 14 of the 31 productions staged.
The pair had a good relationship and Alan has fond memories of the increasingly terrible roles they wrote for each other which culminated in Alan playing “a homicidal, 108 year old female cook / nanny” in David’s Little Brother, Little Sister. His role as a one-eyed, one armed, one-legged bar-tender in Solider From The Wars Returning must have a come a close second though!
Possibly David’s most memorable acting moment came in early 1960 when he appeared, alongside Alan Ayckbourn, in Harold Pinter’s professional directorial debut in the second production of The Birthday Party. Sadly, David’s experiences of playing Petey under the author’s eye are not know, although Alan has spoken of his own extraordinary experiences playing Stanley. Certainly David and Alan can claim to be part of the production which Pinter later claimed restored his faith both in the play itself following its West End mauling in 1958 and his own writing abilities. As for why Pinter ended up directing The Birthday Party with the Scarborough in-the-round company, that is a story for another day.
Like Alan, Stephen also encouraged David to try his hand at directing, initially directing his own play Usher in 1962, followed by Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels in 1963. Indeed, like many of the Scarborough company at the time, David had diverse talents being writer, actor, director and manager – much as Alan was writer, director, actor, stage manager and lighting / sound technician for the company between 1957 and 1962.
Perhaps influenced by Stephen Joseph’s own interests, much of David’s early work would be considered far edgier than Alan Ayckbourn’s – which was unashamedly populist and commissioned and written to bring in the audiences. But in David’s work – particularly in his shorter plays collected under titles such as A View From The Brink and Four Minute Warning – we have darkly funny pieces which encapsulate theatre of menace, concerns about the nuclear age, bureaucracy and the direction the world was going. Several of them venture into absurdist territory – Alan Ayckbourn still remembers the difficulty of acting under a paper bag for David’s short play Then….
David was unswervingly loyal to Stephen Joseph and, after Stephen left to found the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, in 1962, David agreed to run the Scarborough company in his absence. These were difficult years for the Scarborough company as subsidies from the Arts Council dried up and the company fought with both the Libraries Committee and the Town Council for support and funding. With Stephen away from Scarborough much of the time, David and theatre manager Ken Boden were caught at the sharp end of trying to run the theatre. Indeed when, frustrated by the perceived bureaucracy of the town and lack of council support, Stephen Joseph decided to close the Library Theatre in 1965, it was he and David whose names are on the document announcing the closure of the theatre.
The theatre itself was saved, largely thanks to the work of Ken Boden – another key figure in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre whose memory is marked by the Boden Room at the SJT today – and re-opened as a professional venue in 1967. By this point, Stephen was terminally ill and would die in October of that year. David had also decided to step away from Scarborough, although he would remain a board member of Scarborough Theatre Trust in the years to come.
The last play Stephen Joseph directed in Scarborough before his death was David’s Cock & Bull Story in 1965. Following his death, David was vocal in defending Stephen’s artistic legacy and was responsible for facilitating the acquisition of Stephen’s papers by the University of Manchester.
Although David would remain interested in and close to the Library Theatre, his playwriting days there had – essentially – ended with Stephen. He would have only one more play produced in Scarborough with Alan Ayckbourn directing the gothic thriller Carmilla in 1972.
While it may be almost 50 years since one of his plays was last performed at the SJT, David found considerable success outside Scarborough. He wrote more than 100 one act plays and 20 full-length plays; of which more than 20 are currently published by Samuel French with considerably more available to produce. His one act plays have long been a staple of amateur groups and his continued popularity can be measured by the fact that in 2010, he was the most performed playwright in the All England Theatre Festival.
Although David is not publicly recognised in the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the town where he first found professional success, many original manuscripts of his earliest plays are held in archive in The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre alongside several of his early published works, which he donated to the theatre. A mark of how much he thought of Scarborough can be found for anyone walking the famed Marine Drive. There, half-way round on one of the prime viewing spots of the wild North Sea and beneath the cliffs on which the castle stands, there is a seat dedicated to David by his family commemorating his love for the town.
David died in 2006 at the age of 82, shortly after receiving the Doctor Of Letters at the University of Leicester, having undoubtedly made a significant and lasting mark on British drama. His plays continue to be performed and be popular and John Russell Taylor’s description of his writing seems as relevant today as it did in 1961.
“His voice is individual, and deserves to be heard.”
Continuing our look at some of my favourite things held in the Ayckbourn Archive regarding his plays, we skip forward a year to 1961 and Alan’s fourth play, Standing Room Only.
This is a key early play for Alan Ayckbourn. I’d argue strongly it’s the first play where Alan’s own voice as a playwright begins to be heard, it’s also the first of his plays to be optioned for the West End and television (although neither occurred) and it is also the earliest of his plays which is credited to Alan Ayckbourn rather than his pseudonym Roland Allen (although it was initially credited to Allen, subsequent revivals credited it to Ayckbourn).
My favourite item related to this play is the rather notorious review The Stage newspaper gave the play in July 1961, which is reprinted below:
Is There A Manager To Drive This Bus To Shaftesbury Avenue?
Stephen Joseph‘s company at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, have established a reputation for zany off-beat comedies, plays which say, “Isn’t this absurd? Isn’t it ridiculous, funny and impossible?” and then, suddenly “Isn’t this true?”
In the past the chief writer in this vein has been David Campton. Now, in Standing Room Only, Roland Allen takes his turn. We remember him as a writer of farces, and his new play is very funny, but it is also totally logical, and a cautionary tale for tomorrow.
Let us suppose that the population continues to increase by compound interest – as it is doing – and that more and more people buy cars – as they are doing – and that nothing is done about it until too late – as almost nothing is being done – and the inevitable end will be ‘Saturation Saturday’, when London’s traffic comes to a great and final halt in the rush-hour.
Mr. Allen has taken this inevitability, and considered its consequences, taking a traditional cockney bus-driver and his family, and setting his play on their bus, stuck in Shaftesbury Avenue since before the two daughters were born.
A desperate government is raising skyscrapers ever higher, and has answered its population problem by making childbirth illegal. And here on the bus, the impossible accident has happened and the law-abiding daughter and the son-in-law – who is a pillar of the civil service – are having an illegal baby.
With completely logical absurdity this situation is followed through in a comedy which the cast clearly enjoys at as high a pitch as the audience. The play has still a slight untidiness in parts, but it is the untidiness of exuberance, and does nothing to spoil the evening.
Stanley Page as the cockney driver sighing for the corned beef of yesteryear; David Jarrett as the mysterious outsider; and Alan Ayckbourn as the meticulous, humourless public servant, come together to make a brilliant trio of Expectant Fatherdom.
They are well matched by Rosamund Dickson and Hazel Burt as the two girls, the first a simple believer in what “they” say, and the other an unsentimental individualist.
The play’s gaiety is enhanced by the inspiredly [sic] futuristic costumes by Christine Roland, and by the wildly impressionistic bus on which Stephen Joseph has set it.
Mr. Allen has imagined his bus in Shaftesbury Avenue: is there no management to drive it there?”
So what makes this review so special? After all, it’s not the first time The Stage reviewed Alan’s plays – that privilege belongs to his first play The Square Cat. What’s fascinating is this review brought Alan to the attention of the West End producer Peter Bridge, which brought him to the attention of the famed literary agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay, both of which then led to his first major West End success, Relatively Speaking, in 1967. But above and beyond that, all this happened because of what is – essentially – a fake review!
To explain, the review was written by Joan MacAlpine. Not a famed or noted theatre critic for The Stage. Or any other publication. Rather a company manager and occasional playwright. More specifically, a company manager for Stephen Joseph’s Library Theatre company. In fact, the company manager for Standing Room Only….
At the time, The Stage had an open review policy – although it presumably discouraged people involved in the actual productions writing the reviews. Joan managed to sneak this one by The Stage and wrote, to be fair, a review with a killer and very attractive punch-line: ‘Mr Allen has imagined his bus in Shaftesbury Avenue: is there no management to drive it there?’ Very clever and it worked. As a result of reading the review, Peter Bridge saw the play and optioned it for the West End, arguably offering a fast-track for his plays which followed.
From this play we can also trace back Alan’s dislike for the West End. Having optioned the play, Bridge kept asking Alan for rewrites to accommodate whatever the tastes of whichever star he thought might show an interest in the play: Carry On star Sid James expressed an interest but thought it needed far more ‘rudes’ (swear words). With each star, Alan altered the script either superficially (changing the description of a character to match that of the interested party) or fairly significantly – there’s a possibility an entirely new character, Ellie, was written purely to cater for an interest by Hattie Jacques.
As a result of this Alan grew quite angry with the thought of needlessly rewriting plays: “I kept rewriting till I was heartily sick of the thing. Needless to say it finished up a total mess. I’ve hated re-writing ever since.” It also made him very wary of the star-system which was already prevalent in the West End and only grew over the decades. Alan has always disliked the way stars are dropped into West End productions of his work and unbalance what are always intended as ensemble pieces.
All of this can be traced back to a fairly innocuous review in The Stage that probably should never have been printed in the first place!
If you’re interested in Standing Room Only, then there is a unique opportunity to actually see it performed live. On Thursday 4 July at The Square Chapel theatre, Halifax, Dick & Lottie Theatre Company is presenting a rehearsed reading of Standing Room Only preceded by an introduction to the play by myself. Alan Ayckbourn has given permission for this one-off production as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. It will be the first time the play has been performed in its entirety since 1966 and will then go back into archive following the performance on 4 July. Given the playwright has no intention of letting it be produced again or be published, this is a unique opportunity for fans of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing. Further details can be found here.
This summer Alan Ayckbourn will revive his classic play Season’s Greetings at his home venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
Season’s Greetings has an unusual history though as it wasn’t actually the play Alan set out to write in 1980. On 27 July 1980, the Evening Standard announced Alan’s latest play would be called Sight Unseen. No clue as to its content was given although the playwright noted ‘I’ve a glimmer at the moment but if I told you the plot it would sound ludicrous.’
At this point, he wrote to the director Christopher Morahan at the National Theatre noting: ‘I’m about to write play 25 and am pacing nervously. It’s called, somewhat fittingly, Sight Unseen. Assuming I finish that, I shall have it rehearsed and into repertoire by the end of September and will actually have a few days to spare when I shall make haste Nationalwards.’
By mid August, various newspapers reported that Alan had ‘locked himself’ away to write his latest piece Sight Unseen. This being literally the case. Alan throughout his career is renowned for essentially going into seclusion when writing his plays, emerging from his office only to forage for food and leaving strict instructions not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Fortunately, he’s a little more relaxed about it all now!
The subject of Sight Unseen was still a secret though with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round’s press officer Stephen Wood saying: ‘No one has a clue what the play is about, and we shall not until Alan gives us the script.’
And no-one would – officially – ever find out what the play was about. Rehearsals for Sight Unseen were scheduled to begin on 4 September 1980. On, approximately, 1 September, Alan contacted the theatre to – rather worryingly – note that he was going to write an entirely different play called Season’s Greetings. Rehearsals were pushed back a day (as was the opening night) as Alan stormed through the script writing an entirely different play.
Alan himself has briefly spoken of what happened, but has never gone into depth about the proposed play; in a recent interview regarding Season’s Greetings he professed he had forgotten all about Sight Unseen. However, a contemporary interview does shed some light on the play: ‘It’s wrong to say I was actually into the dialogue stage. I was into the construction stage: I was putting up the fences. I then did a volte face and left myself with just two things from the thriller. One was that I set it in a hallway which I quite liked.’
Of course, cynically, one could also say that given the play was a week away from going into rehearsals, it was probably fairly opportune to utilise a hallway set which was presumably already being built!
Other than the confirmation the play was a thriller, nothing else was known about the play until 2010. Whilst working in the Ayckbourn Archive, I came across two pieces of foolscap paper with random handwritten notes on them which – at first glance – appeared to refer to Season’s Greetings. Until a closer look revealed that Neville is not killed by a random murderer in Season’s Greetings! Given the names of the characters are largely identical to those used in Season’s Greetings, the notes are indicative of a thriller / whodunit plot and the random murderer idea would be revived two years later, these were obviously Alan’s notes for Sight Unseen.
These two sheets of paper offered a huge insight into what Alan was planning and how certain elements were recycled for Season’s Greetings (such as the set and the character names) and for his 1983 thriller It Could Be Any One Of Us (a thriller where the murderer is randomly determined each performance).
As these extracts from the notes demonstrate, the play was about the murder of Neville Bunker and who was responsible for it. Several characters share similar names and relationships to those in Season’s Greetings, although Belinda is variously referred to as Belinda, Melinda and Angela. The notes also clearly indicate there’s a random murderer and what each person’s motives are – although no hint is given as to how the random choice would be made. As can be seen from the notes, these reasons are:
Melinda kills Nev to free her
Derek kills Nev to free her [presumably Melinda / Belinda]
Bernard kills Nev to avoid family break-up
Veronica kills Nev to avoid family break up
Obviously Alan had second thoughts about this play which largely can be traced back to the same problems which would dog him while writing It Could Be Any One Of Us in that for a random murder thriller to work, everyone has to have legitimate reasons to murder the same person, which essentially means you have a house full of homicidal maniacs. Alan decided that, as a result, ‘it was rather a boring thing to write.’ His solution to this problem when he wrote It Could Be Any One of Us was not to have an actual murder, but that posed its own problems and he later rewrote the play to incorporate a death.
As it is, Sight Unseen was forgotten with the success of Season’s Greetings. But behind one of Alan’s most popular plays lays one of his most obscure unwritten works and the play that never was.