Alan Ayckbourn: A Westwood Diary (1996)This extensive article by Alan Ayckbourn was featured in the souvenir programme for Just Between Ourselves (1996), the final production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round (known as Westwood). Within it, Alan discusses his experiences at the venue as Artistic Director, director and writer during the period 1976 to 1996.
1976. The big move from the Library Theatre, Vernon Road - our home for 20 years - to the new Westwood School Building.
0ctober. 2.00pm. We start the technical rehearsal for our opening production, Mr Whatnot, a revival of my 1964 play. As I enter the auditorium and look back at the foyer there is a cement mixer outside the box office and the bar, at the far end, is buried under a pile of timber. I have a premonition this might be a difficult birth. 7.25pm. After a five-and-a-half hour technical rehearsal I step out into the foyer. The cement mixer has gone, the carpet is down and there is a queue at the box office. At the bar, people are buying drinks. Someone has wrought a miracle.
December/January 1976/7. I persuade in-the-round regular Stanley Page to repeat his wonderful performance as Davies in The Caretaker. It was a role he first created in the Victoria Theatre, Stoke production in which on and off for two years I also played Aston. I was very happy on this occasion to hand that role on to Bob Eaton. Next, my first new play for our new theatre at Westwood. It is written over the Christmas holiday (a bad idea). We have poached eggs for Christmas dinner. Three quarters of the way through I abandon the first draft and have to start again. Ten Times Table emerges finally, the story of a well meaning but quite disastrous charitable committee, all at loggerheads. Many assume this is based on the characters who make up the Theatre Trust during the theatre's recent move. They may be right.
Summer 1977. Our second season. Life as hectic as ever. Fallen Angels is our first production. Robin Herford plays the Frenchman in the last act so we are able to rehearse Sleuth, our second production, in the theatre's scenic workshop during the first two acts of Fallen Angels. As everyone has predicted the maid, played by Diane Bull, steals the show. A certain tension in the air. There was, I later discovered, another version of Fallen Angels in which the maid barely features. Evidently the one favoured by leading ladies. Wrong!!! During this season, Jubilee Year, we present the first of our lunchtime studio shows in the bar. Written by Bob Eaton, it's enormously successful. Westwood Coronation Day Street Party. Bob Eaton sings his clever songs. Malcolm Hebden reprises the wig he wore in Mr Whatnot. Tom Laughton, our Chairman, declares it quite the best thing we've ever done.
Winter 1977. Opens with Pygmalion. Confirms my suspicion that I am not a director of Shaw. The more I cut the thing the longer it seems to get. Christopher Godwin (Higgins) and Diane Bull (Eliza) do their damnedest. Stanley Page gives the first Australian Doolittle (good on 'yer, Henry Iggins). Then another big costume play, A Man for all Seasons, with Robert Austin in the title role. Michael Holt designs a stunning set and we go mad (as usual) with both the sound and light plots. Dialogue can be faintly heard. Actors dimly made out. John Arthur plays Cardinal Wolsey. As he is one of the naturally funniest actors I know, I was very lucky to get away with that particular casting. Very few laughs at all. We finish with a production of Hindle Wakes directed by Stanley Page which features every Northern accent known to man and several never heard before by anyone. Mostly incomprehensible. Even darker than A Man for all Seasons. We must buy more lanterns. We end the season with my second new play for Westwood, Joking Apart, which could become one of my favourites so far. David Millard, our production manager, brings together a truly atmospheric set with real trees and grass and all the accompanying insect life that comes with it. Robin Herford sprawled out on the grass one night comes face to face with a centipede (non-Equity). Bob Austin discovers a great comic creation in Sven, the ex-Finnish junior tennis champion.
Spring/Summer 1978. Also in the season, Rookery Nook which we struggle to get right but never manage. Ben Travers whom I've recently met comes to see a performance. He is very polite about the production, chases the actresses and consumes at least two bottles of Bollinger whilst on the premises. I apologise for failing to get a section right although we followed his stage directions faithfully. "That's alright," he replies, "I don't think we ever got it right, either." I am captivated and hope, if I live to 93, I can be as magnanimous. We follow with Associate Director Mervyn Watson's first production, Neil Simon's Plaza Suite. Designed as the season's safe banker, it does the trick. My abiding memory is of John Arthur in a blonde wig and mock Gucci shoes. Thank God, it's a comedy.
Winter 1978. Brian Thompson's first play for us, Patriotic Bunting. It's one of those rare plays (for us) in that it's actually set in Scarborough. Good, funny, unpredictable, unpatronising comic writing. We seem to be rehearsing in the scenic workshop again. Then Mervyn's production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. James Bate (Guildenstern) walks into the auditorium for the first time. "Right, that's the dressing room, now where's the stage?" People keep banging on my office door threatening to resign. Could it be a symptom of Mervyn's confrontational directorial style? No-one's saying. I am busy finishing Sisterly Feelings, one of my 'alternative ending' plays (or in this case alternative middles) featuring a set which turns the Theatre's A and B blocks into a 1 in 5 grass gradient down which at one point Robin Murphy rides an ancient pushbike which takes some courage. On the technical fit up Jeremy Turner, the designer, drops, steps on and destroys his glasses. He is totally blind without them, I discover. I walk round the set with him, confirming the colours. "No, that's green. Darkish green." On the first 'random' night - the subsequent action determined by an on-stage character's toss of a coin - the half-crown lands edge on and rolls off-stage and half way along the passage to the bar. The cast walk sheepishly offstage, following the rogue coin. So much for random spontaneity. One potential customer refuses to buy tickets on grounds of the title. She informs the box office that she 'does not care to watch plays about lesbians.' Presumably implying that she can get all that at home. Lavinia Bertram reveals a hitherto unheralded side of herself when she turns up for the technical rehearsal with a set of custom-made funny teeth for her character, Brenda. I give them the OK. At this stage of uncertainty, we can use all the comedy help we can get. Christine Welch (wife of actor Chris Godwin) writes and directs the first of her children's plays for us, a piece of story theatre, Once Upon a Time. I love it.
Spring 1979. The Seagull launches our fourth extended season, the first time we have opened before Easter. It is the second time I have indulged a passion for directing my most favourite of dramatists, Anton Chekhov. The first time was at the Library in a production with Chris Godwin as Uncle Vanya. The Guardian described the production then as cringingly ropy. For The Seagull, the great British public - true to form - stay away in their hundreds. Ah, well. On current form my Three Sisters when that arrives should close the theatre. Another Neil Simon (whom people do want to see) Barefoot in the Park. And Brian Thompson's second play, Tishoo. This calls for live rabbits in cages onstage. It's set in a common cold research centre. We compromise with hutches full of straw and inanimate furry objects operated from offstage by string. No-one is convinced. John Arthur, though, is wonderful in the leading role. Our lunchtime and late night season is well developed by different shows a week throughout the summer months. Stephen Mallatratt pens a late-night, comic strip delight entitled St Trixie. It is the first time the f - word is used in the theatre (onstage anyway). We wait with bated breath. No one in the audience seems in the least bothered. This is the first year in our new (second phase) arrangement with the bar moved to its revised position. Plus a new shop, extra offices and improved backstage arrangements including - hooray - a rehearsal room.
Winter 1979/80. The Crucible. Probably the biggest cast to date we've presented on that stage (about 17 in total). Which goes to prove Stephen Joseph's old maxim that every square foot of in-the-round stage is viable playing space (which is more than can be said for most proscenium arch stages). The play is visually terrific (designer Michael Holt); Trevor Smith and I light the famous courtroom scene with just eight lanterns. We are both very proud of this but the actors' comments are unrecorded. Also this season, Taking Steps. One of our biggest comedy successes. The audience response is so great on the first night that at the end of the first act it overloads the theatre's ancient show relay system, cutting it out completely. Thereafter no-one backstage can hear the show at all. I break my own rule and go round in the interval to congratulate the cast. I am surprised to find them rather tense, sitting in silence. "Personally," says the lugubrious John Arthur who plays the drunken bucket manufacturer, Roland Crabbe, "I find all this laughter a bit frightening." You can't win. To end the season, Musical Director, Paul Todd and I combine for the first time to write Suburban Strains, a seriously complex musical. Well, at least thanks to designer John Halle, it gives us our revolving stage for all time.
Summer/Winter 1980/81. The season opens with Time and the Conways in which I use, yes, the revolving stage. We decide, shortly afterwards, to take the revolving stage up in order to prevent all future productions spinning needlessly. A terrific company - self energising - always a bonus. It means as a director you can sit back and enjoy the ride more. Tessa Peake-Jones, Abigail McKern in her first stage appearance and a splendid Marcia Warren as the grande dame, Mrs Conway. Leo McKern comes to see the show and asks to be 'slipped in quietly just before it starts so my daughter won't know.' He enters late and the whole audience rises and applauds Rumpole to the rafters.
Winter 1981 / 82. A stylish Importance Of Being Earnest directed by Robin Herford but best remembered on the first performance for Lane (Jeffrey Robert) dropping all the sandwiches in the wings just before the tea party scene. He replaces them hurriedly. The onstage cast pick their way gingerly through the debris. Why is it that theatre disasters are what one remembers? The garden scene has real fountains with real water in them. This plants the seed of an idea. My own writing contribution to this season is Season's Greetings (officially my 25th play [actually Alan's 26th] complete with silver poster). A dissatisfied local tradesman demands his money back saying some of the sexual explicitness disgusted him. I feel rather proud. I've never disgusted anyone dramatically before. Well, not to my knowledge. The season finishes with Robin's production of Michael Frayn's Clouds in the studio theatre swathed in butter muslin. Quite the most adventurous production to date staged in that space. He has an actor in the cast to play the chauffeur who, it turns out, has never driven in his life. Robin spends most of the rehearsal teaching a man to mime driving.
Summer 1982. A season of totally new plays. Quite remarkable really. Brian Thompson's third play, The Conservatory, Paul Copley's Tapster and Peter Tinniswood's childhood fantasy, You Should See Us Now. Whilst in the studio Paul's and my Me, Myself and I, which I have to rehearse in my lunch hours (two places at once syndrome). It turns out just as well as if I'd been there throughout all rehearsals. Which makes me wonder sometimes about the usefulness of directors. Finally Out Front by Trevor Cooper which nobody much enjoys except the critic of the Scarborough Evening News who comes to see it nine times. There's always one.
Winter 1981/2. The seed has germinated. We present Way Upstream, probably our boldest scenic coup, complete with ten inches of water, moving boat, landing stage, and full supporting rainstorm. More remarkable because the design/technical team Edward Lipscomb, Trevor Smith and Francis Lynch have less than a month's notice as to the play's technical requirements. (I am still at the phase of completing new plays only hours before the rehearsals start.) The resulting achievement by everyone is remarkable. On the first preview the entire audience seems to be made up of people who had somehow got involved - boat builders, engineers, water experts. When the boat casts its moorings and moves away from the bank they all stand and cheer. The Queen never had such a launching. In the excitement, the theatre's first glimpse of male and female full frontal (and back) nudity goes almost unnoticed. We do notice, though, from the advance booking plan that the seats in A and B blocks where it all happens frontally so to speak tend to sell first. Ah-ha, Scarborough, caught you at it! The play goes on, infamously, to all but close the National Theatre. Of the dry land productions this season we stage our very first Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, directed by Robin and Making Tracks, my second musical collaboration with Paul Todd.
Summer 1982. A rather unusual summer. It features only two actors, Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford who, having survived their trip to Houston, Texas with Way Upstream agree to tackle my play cycle Intimate Exchanges which at the start of the season is largely unwritten. In fact it will be written, staged and completed over nearly a year. Ten characters, thirty scenes, sixteen hours of dialogue. They become so confident that they often start the evening having all but forgotten the lines of the last fifteen minute scene which they will play that night. (There are sixteen such scenes to choose from). I find them in the interval running the lines whilst they change costumes. I am suddenly the one who's feeling nervous.
Winter 1982/3. By the autumn we have saved enough on actors to do one or two larger scale productions including de Fillipo's Saturday, Sunday, Monday. The best moment is probably the scene in which the cast of 20 silently sit and eat their way through plates of spaghetti while the audience waits salivating but fascinated. They make a killing later in the bistro selling... plates of spaghetti. Also in the season is my loose (very loose) adaptation of Sheridan's A Trip to Scarborough. Paul and I finish with a musical revue, Incidental Music. Not a huge success in the main house. In the round musicals are very difficult.
Summer 1983. This season includes another Peter Tinniswood play, At the End of the Day (never do sequels) and Michael Cashman's exotic Before Your Very Eyes which includes a stage guillotine, a woman sawn in half, and a 'vanishing' cabinet so large you could lose a double decker bus in it. The season also features Robin Herford's production of The Winslow Boy. Our first Rattigan. I notice how much the so-called 'smart' accent has vanished amongst actors in the rush to claim bona fide working class antecedents. Actor Rupert Vansittart as the fiance, the genuine article, shows the way.
Winter 1983/4. I kick off with my new one for the year, It Could Be Any One Of Us, my first venture into the treacherous world of the comedy thriller. This has any one of three possible murderers who vary from night tonight. The only problem with the play is that I forget to provide a corpse. Apparently thriller aficionados prefer to have a corpse. Bloodthirsty lot. I must remedy that sometime. Robin directs enjoyable, traditional She Stoops To Conquer. We follow up with Ben Travers' classic Thark which I cope with a lot more successfully than Rookery Nook, largely because on this occasion I ignore all Ben's stage directions. Paul and I stage another musical revue (will we never learn?) The Seven Deadly Virtues. It's even less popular than last year's.
Summer 1984. Malcolm Hebden returns to the company this time as Associate Director (in place of Robin who's off to London with Intimate Exchanges). His first production is The Dresser which, considering it's a play all about the traditional proscenium arch theatre, he manages to solve rather ingeniously. Then Priestley's The Linden Tree. A rather neglected piece and very touching. Before all this though we launch the season with A Chorus Of Disapproval, my own sortie into the world of small town politics and amateur operatics. I had originally intended to include some of the local amateur singers to form the chorus. When I met them I discovered that none of them was at all interested in chorus work, it was the lead or nothing. Stupid of me. Finally Equity stepped in and put a stop to it all, anyway. We re-install the revolve for the show on which the company dance whilst it's in motion. One night the operator takes it the wrong way. The stage is covered in actors laughing helplessly. The season ends with Michael Cashman's second play for us, Bricks 'N' Mortar, set on a building site and in which we actually build a wall (of sorts). Russ Dixon (whose teeth are his own) manages somehow to mime taking false teeth out on stage and losing them in a bucket of cement. Now that's what I call acting.
Winter 1984/5. A season of mixed fortunes. Sometimes audiences just seem to get up and go elsewhere for a time. York? Hull? Perhaps three American plays doesn't help. Malcolm back acting in Last of the Red Hot Lovers does just fine but A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room, a telling study of WASP society and a production of which I was inordinately proud, sends them scurrying for their videos. Later we try Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns which doesn't fare much better. Single (male) parent Jewish New York families don't appeal either. Malcolm Hebden makes a quick appearance dressed as Chuckles the Chipmunk. You'd have thought that would have been worth the price of admission. I do some filming for this with members of our younger Theatre Group, Rounders, which I think will excite them. They ask if they will be paid. I might have known. What's happened to the good old British spirit of amateurism and child exploitation? Later on, in a veritable blaze of inventiveness, designer Eddie Lipscomb manages to remove most of the seating from the auditorium entirely when I direct Sandy Wilson's His Monkey Wife. We even have a boat (again) sailing along behind the back row of C and D blocks. The main entrance becomes a desert island hut whilst A and B blocks become respectively a bar and a cabaret slot with a six-piece band. The half dozen or so patrons (including the author) who manage to find seats appear to enjoy it and, at a stroke, we have solved the problem of dwindling houses. Less seats, higher percentages.
Summer 1985. After the run of Intimate Exchanges in the West End, Robin Herford returns to the theatre as both actor and associate director for Dario Fo's Can't Pay? Won't Pay! which is a huge and (certainly as far as I'm concerned) unexpected success. Ursula Jones returns to play Susan in Woman in Mind and heads a wonderful cast including a first appearance by Barry McCarthy as the dithering doctor, Heather Stoney as Muriel, Susan's 'black hole' of a sister-in-law and Russell Dixon as the sanctimonious Gerald.
Winter 1985/6. I get an offer from Peter Hall I can't refuse to come and run a company at the National. It's too good to miss. He very craftily realises that it is about the only offer that could ever lure me away from Scarborough even temporarily. It is only for two years but it means someone else must run the company in my absence. I feel very possessive but ask Robin Herford who knows the place as well as I do. I know it will come to no harm. To complicate matters further, Ken Boden who has been General Manager and cornerstone for so long also decides it's time to retire. Next year a new team. We kick off the (temporary farewell) season with a revival of one of my earlier near misses, now entitled Family Circles. I should have left it alone. Next another big production, a two-part adaptation of Christopher Fry's TV series, The Brontes. "The trouble with the Brontes is that they all keep dying," an actor is heard to remark during rehearsals. Never mind, in our version they invariably came back as somebody else, thoroughly vindicating Patrick's belief in the Hereafter. Alas, this is the time of the teachers' strike and not a single, eagerly expected school books to see it. We regularly play to less than there are in the cast. The Brontes are not the only ones that are dying. The cast keep up their spirits by holding their own award ceremonies. Best death by a female novelist. Best drunken brother, least successful railway employee, etc. Finally a production of Tons of Money, a good old fashioned farce that preceded the better known Ben Travers-Aldwych series. It's terribly unfunny. I have already agreed to do it in the Lyttelton as the opening play of my National Theatre season. I sit down and start re-writing.
Summer 1986. Robin Herford takes over the Artistic Directorship. 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?
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 Miller's All My Sons and then 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 three-hander. 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, 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 Fête 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 now firmly re-established as the company's full-time Associate Director. Firstly, To by Jim Cartwright 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.
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. 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. 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.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.