A Trip To Scarborough (2003)

Alan Ayckbourn has rarely written or spoken in-depth about his adaptation of A Trip To Scarborough. The following transcript of a talk about the play and the pitfalls of staging it was given to students in Scarborough in March 2003. It offers an insight both into the history of the play and Alan’s thoughts on the challenges it presents.

A Trip To Scarborough has only been done twice [1], to my knowledge, once in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and once at Stoke-on-Trent at the Victoria Theatre.

I kept being told about and eventually read a play of R.B. Sheridan’s called
A Trip To Scarborough. People said ‘why don’t you do it? As it’s set in Scarborough.’ It turned out to be, I thought, an inferior version of Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. It’s sort of a simplified version of it with all the bad language taken out of it and with none of the raciness and the sex. I thought there’s no point doing that, you might as well just do The Relapse and have done with it. But then you lost A Trip To Scarborough, which was the whole point of doing it.[2]

So I played around with it for a bit and I then thought if I wove it into a bigger structure I could still do
A Trip To Scarborough. Obviously I used Sheridan’s play as a starting point, but I got very interested in the way it’s about the role of a hero and heroine in one sense. Tom Fashion in A Trip To Scarborough is a very lovable, ne’er do well sort of rogue and he’s a light and fun character; there’s very little angst or torment.

I also wanted to write, although I was much too young to remember it, something set around the period of World War Two, when heroism was still the premium and we’d just seen it revived. But the interest of the hero in that case was one knew people were going out every night and not coming back. In this case, the families waiting for their pilot husbands and fathers and the guys themselves, who kept losing friends; the fighter pilots and the bomber pilots. And it must have been bizarre, these men had to live for the day which explains why they’re nine glasses cut most of the time, they’d actually just sober up in time to get into the planes. And I then moved forward to what was the 1980s, to the sort of early Yuppiedom [3] and the decline of the hero to these flashy, travelling salesmen, all in the same suit and also getting drunk. It occurred to me that from Tom Fashion to the 1980s, there is a hell of a journey.

The Royal Hotel struck me as being a very good centre for the play [4] - although I have abused history quite a lot! I don’t even know that people were billeted there during the war, I suspect it was used to some extent for servicemen. By the 1980s, it had been sold to a chain and began what has been over the past two or three decades a decline for the hotel. But at one point it was the most extraordinary hotel, it was like a giant house party. Tom Laughton, the older brother of the actor Charles Laughton and once chairman of our theatre trust, ran the hotel and people would drive for miles for weekends, up from London constantly and the joint was absolutely jumping. It was a very great, grand place

Back to the play itself, obviously what amused me was to weave the original story around the fabric of the two other stories. I used as a basis, just to link them really, the two mechanicals - Gander and Pestle - the hall porter and the young lad learning the job and completely new to it all.

It’s actually a massive piece of story-telling and it’s complex, mind-boggingly complex. Looking back at it after 20 years, it makes your ears bleed just looking at it! But actually it works on the stage, it is clear in performance. I suspect as long as you address the narrative, which is very important, it works. You have to be aware of the story, to be aware of the narrative, all the time. Once people lose the play’s plot, you’ve lost them. They’ve gone; they might not walk out, but they’ll fall asleep or lose interest.

It is a complex play and it is plot-bound: there’s a thriller plot within it - did he or did he not murder his wife in the 1940s section? That’s quite enough for one evening really! But then you’ve got Tom Fashion trying to usurp his brother’s marriage in order to claim the inheritance and then you have the two businessmen and their big scam with Sheridan’s script itself with Holly and this huge conspiracy. So you’re actually asking the audience to process three plays at once. There are certain things you can do to help the audience, such as affecting the light changes to show you’re in 1800, 1942 or the present day; in 1942, there’s a very stark and war-time feel to the lighting, whereas there’s glamour and candlelight in the 1800s section. In the end, it’s all to do with the style of the play, the presentation of the characters and a certain amount of costume.

The acting styles are important too as it’s not just a Restoration piece;. It’s more than a period piece, it’s two period pieces really and a contemporary piece! Each period has a style which is different to the other periods. The Restoration parts have a tremendous energy and the language itself claimed a certain formality in the way it presented itself, which gave the actors a good challenge physically as well as verbally. It is very rich because that stuff is spoken in a way modern speech is not; at speed. The ‘40s dialogue also had a style to it which is quite important to find because I wrote it in the style of the period. I wrote it from all the movies I’d seen with Celia Johnson in them, all the war-time movies. Certain things are quite interesting such as all the woman have very high voices - you never know why! There’s a certain style, it’s not a parody and it’s quite difficult not to parody but it’s just the way to present it.

Music also plays a large part in the play; at the time of writing the play we had some resident musicians who were part of the company and I used to write them into everything I did. There were three guys, one of whom was an actor and the two others who hated being on stage. I always had them come on just to annoy them!

When I’m doing my own plays, there’s fun to be had, but it’s mainly to do with exploring the truth of each scene. It’s always the truth. This is very important and it’s something I say to every company I’ve ever worked with. Just trust the play, don’t try and make it funny because that is the death of it. The only way you will make this play - or any of my plays - work is if the audience believe it and they’ve got to keep hold of the line from one story to another. It’s not simply the case of weaving one delicate thread of narrative with this play. We’re jumping around in time, so it’s very important you keep the audience involved so when you go back and forth you still have their belief.

One of the key things in the play is young Pestle who’s absolutely focal to holding the balance. It’s quite crucial that he believes in the events and his concern about the events is genuine because his belief is our the audience’s belief. We can’t really relate to characters who keep changing their shape or form. The two in the middle, they are the ones you tend to keep as your home base; Pestle in particular as he’s as new to the events as we are. This is a dramatist’s trick, you find one character everyone can explain things to quite legitimately; someone who’s as ignorant as we are. So you can get the thing going. He’s that link between us and the events.

The other important thing, which is actually directorial, is the play never stops. It has to just go like that. It’s important to think of it as a continuous play, rather than a play with numerous different scenes, and that the first break is actually the interval. The rest of the time, people are ripping costumes off and pulling on others. It’s a hectic show, but a fun one and you really have to go for it.

So that’s
A Trip To Scarborough very briefly. It is complex and I think it’s also funny, but I suspect like all comedy the best way to approach it is deeply, deeply seriously.

Footnotes:
1) Since this interview in 2003,
A Trip To Scarborough has been revived twice. Alan revived it at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2007 and students at Yorkshire Coast College, Scarborough, performed it in 2003.

2) Vanbrugh’s
The Relapse, of which A Trip To Scarborough is an adaptation, was not set in Scarborough.

3) Yuppie: Acronym for Young Urban Professional, a catch-all phrase for the ambitious and high-earning young businessmen that largely came to the fore during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister.

4) Alan Ayckbourn’s adaptation of the play differs from Sheridan’s play as it is set entirely in the foyer of Scarborough’s Royal Hotel.


Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.