Alan Ayckbourn: Stephen Joseph Theatre Memories (2009)This extensive article by Alan Ayckbourn was written for the Friends of the Stephen Joseph Theatre to mark Alan Ayckbourn stepping down as Artistic Director of the venue in 2009. Within it he briefly discusses some of the memories of his time at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
I’ve been asked to jot down a few memories over the decades. Here goes then. It’s by no means comprehensive, I’ve probably left out more than I’ve included here, indeed I know I certainly have, but it’ll do for starters.
1959 - The Square Cat produced. I appear onstage in my very first play. Singing and dancing and playing the guitar, none of which I can do. Nonetheless earning £33 in royalties - the equivalent of over a month’s wages! Could try this again.
Love After All (by the smash hit author of The Square Cat) follows swiftly. Featuring the author in four roles, including one in drag. Similar results financially.
1960 - Dad’s Tale - a third attempt, this time a Christmas show which I write for two separate companies - our own and a dance troupe from Manchester. And in which I played no less than eight roles. The companies only meet up at the dress rehearsal. Disastrous - four people in the audience at the first performance including Stephen (who directed), Mrs PB (his housekeeper), David Campton (on the box office) and the local critic. Disappointing financially. Note to self: avoid writing Christmas shows in future.
Later, the “Stoke years”. A year round Theatre in the Round is established in a converted cinema in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Stephen Joseph’s dream. Though once built, he typically distances himself from it and takes no further part in it.
Under the Artistic Directorship of Peter Cheeseman, we play to pitifully few in the freezing cold. The regulars, such as they are, bring rugs and blankets and huddle together in the front rows for warmth. Despite this we remain as a company for 18 months or more, till tempers start to fray and scripts are thrown.
Christmas 1962. Appear as an actor for the last time in one of my own plays, Christmas V Mastermind. Disastrous. Meet woman coming out at the end of the performance vowing never to return to the theatre, any theatre, again. Must remember not to write Christmas shows
Write my sixth play, Mr Whatnot - a huge success at the Vic. Later on it’s my first to transfer to the West End in 1964. Dismal failure. Very depressed. Join the BBC and take my first ‘desk job’ as Radio Drama Producer, alongside Alfred Bradley. Am issued with a secretary for the first time, who sits expectantly in the other corner of the office like some expensive piece of machinery ready for immediate use. But have no idea what to use her for so start taking her out to drinks at lunchtime and later on to the theatre in the evening.
Whilst at the BBC, I’m persuaded by Stephen J, to come up with another play. Which I write in long hand, in the space of a few nights with next door’s cat on my lap. The result is Meet My Father for him to direct for the Scarborough summer season. On the fifth night without sleep, declare it to be worthless and send it to him anyway due to pressure of time.
Later change the name of it to Relatively Speaking (so much more West End sounding, darling) and suddenly have a West End hit. After the disappointment of Whatnot a few years earlier decide not to celebrate too early so resolve to stay at the BBC and stick with the day job. My caution is justified when, two years later I write The Sparrow for the summer season which, despite starring Robert Powell and John Nettles (admittedly in his first professional job), sinks with all hands and is never produced again.
It’s a bad year that, because it is also the one when Stephen dies leaving a huge hole in my life.
I don’t go to the funeral, though, as I’m unfamiliar with the protocol having never been to one and believe, like weddings, funerals are by invitation only. Rather hurt that I never got an invitation, actually. Glad he lived to see the success of Relatively, though.
Write another the following year, How the Other Half Loves, which transfers. Starring Robert Morley who warns me in advance that, during his life, he’s ‘left a trail of sadder but richer playwrights behind him’. He was absolutely right. But at least it establishes that I’m not a ‘one hit wonder’ and regaining faith in the theatre quit the BBC after five years. No gold watch or leaving party as I go under a slight cloud of disapproval since I haven’t been in the office much in the last 18 months. Have farewell drink with secretary instead.
Go to America for the first time and on to Broadway with How the Other Half Loves again. This time starring Phil Silvers who, though undoubtedly a comic genius as Sergeant Bilko, is hardly ideal as Frank Foster. Production leaves a sadder, chastened, not much richer dramatist behind it when it closes prematurely.
Hurry back to the safety of Scarborough.
Take over as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in the Round summer company and set about enlarging the length of our playing season from 13 weeks to virtually year round with a semi-permanent company of six.
By the mid-decade we are dividing our time over the winter between the Filey Sun Lounge (in-the-round) on Tuesdays, Whitby’s Spa Theatre (proscenium) Wednesday / Thursdays and back in the Library (three sided as we are unable to use our usual room) Friday / Saturdays. Madness!
Write a clutch of plays, including Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests. Ironically no one initially wants to do the Normans. The West End gets nervous at the unusual and so although there’s interest in the plays individually, as a trilogy they are something of a dead duck. I dig my heels in (not for the first time!) and the three languish on a shelf for some time before Eric Thompson, who’d had such success with Time And Time Again and Absurd Person Singular, phones me to say he is going into hospital for a day or two for a minor op and “Had I something he could take in to read?”
We subsequently launch them over two week gaps at Greenwich Theatre with the legendary ‘golden’ cast - most of them, apart from Tom Courtenay, largely unknown at the time. I remember, unaccountably, feeling that Table Manners, the first of them we open, had gone terribly badly on press night. I recall walking out to Greenwich Park (which was locked) feeling dreadfully depressed and gazing through the gates in the pitch dark. Unfounded, as it happens. The reviews are spectacular. But I remember the following day as we started rehearsals for Living Together, Eric saying “Everyone, congratulations. But you realise we’ve now got to repeat that. Twice!” Thank God we did.
Less memorably, in 1975, successfully conspire with Andrew Lloyd Webber to create the most highly heralded, subsequently much derided musical of the decade, Jeeves. Rather shame-facedly, seeing the disaster which is approaching, I remember avoiding the West End Press Night altogether and taking refuge with Andrew in a restaurant only returning to the theatre to hear the booing from the Upper Circle.
Go backstage to console the star, David Hemmings, who is sitting in the shower half undressed and crying. I remember crouching with him and trying to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault. Nobody thought in the heat of the moment to turn the shower off. Remember going home drenched to the skin. Note to self: along with Christmas shows, in future avoid all musicals.
Bedroom Farce becomes my first National Theatre play, the first time I’m allowed to direct in London. Though only then to co-direct with Peter Hall. Which is fine by me. We don’t get under each other’s feet that much since he’s busy in the next door rehearsal room directing Volpone.
With Just Between Ourselves we finally quit the Library Theatre. And re-open a few weeks later, miraculously in the circumstances, in our second “home” at Westwood.
I remember on the very last night at the Library, going for another of my nocturnal walks. This time to the Spa where I stand under the arches and let the waves threaten my shoes. Depressed again not to say a trifle apprehensive at the big move ahead of us to Westwood.
Clearly remember the first night there, too. Wet paint everywhere front of house, Since the stage lighting board isn’t yet connected, I have to light the show off a trailing thirteen amp lead, each lamp individually, one at a time. The result is that nobody has the remotest idea what the final picture will be.
Cussedly decide to re-open it with a previous failure, Mr Whatnot. Which goes fine if a bit dark in places.
I learn later that we’ve opened ‘illegally’ since after several months we still haven’t signed a lease with the owners, the North Yorkshire County Council.
Soon afterwards we are offered a one year lease, later extended to three as they weren’t sure we were ‘that established’. Presumably implying that we might suddenly up sticks and do a runner! After 21 years? Come on, fellers, give us a break, will you!
We continue for the next twenty years with two or three leases making long term planning a trifle hesitant and giving everyone a slight sense of impermanency.
The decade is also memorable for me flying solo as director in the West End with Ten Times Table.
Nevertheless, the decade finishes on a high with Sisterly Feelings and, later that year, Taking Steps. The first night of the latter is the first time I have ever seen a man literally fall off his seat with laughter. He lies on the auditorium steps, kicking his feet.
At the end of the first Act, breaking with tradition, I go backstage to see the cast. I leave the auditorium as the house lights come up for the interval and make my way to the dressing rooms. I find the cast sitting in the tiny green room in stunned silence. The applause is still rattling through the tannoy speaker on the wall. Finally it dies out. There is a pause. Then one of them says, “It’s a bit frightening this really, isn’t it?”
The Westwood Years!
Undaunted by the setback of Jeeves, embark on a series of musicals with composer Paul Todd, starting with Suburban Strains, then Making Tracks and a whole load of shorter musical lunchtime shows - 10 in all. We write over 100 songs together over the period.
Flood the theatre, not for the first time admittedly but never quite on this scale, with Way Upstream (later, largely technically I might add, to all but sink the National Theatre). Tabloid fame at last!
Also write a play with sixteen endings (Intimate Exchanges) which at the time we start isn’t more than half written. Over that year like a TV Soap writer I just keep ahead of Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. I remember we had to open first A Cricket Match and were into rehearsals for Events On A Hotel Terrace when Robin pulls up short with a panic attack declaring he can’t go on. Help, with another six and a half plays to go! We take a tea break. And on we go.
It is the first time a cast in its entirety transfers to London. Though we had been sneaking Scarborough ‘regulars’ into both the West End and the National Theatre.
Start developing my own writing for children, (the Eighties was the decade for overturned resolutions), first with Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, then Invisible Friends. I begin to enjoy writing for children towards the end of the decade and decide to write children’s plays for adults as well, occasionally …
… starting with Wildest Dreams which mystifies many adults (though not the children who see it oddly enough!)
Continue the theme with a new musical partner, John Pattison, and Dreams from A Summer House.
This is the decade when we make our third and, so far as I’m concerned, final move to our third “home”, the current SJT.
Recall daily trips up from Westwood to view the progress of the building conversion. Donning reinforced boots and hard hat. One day I come across a man building a breeze block wall across the entrance to the Round auditorium. Just as well I looked in when I did.
Remember how we hastily ‘redesign’ the auditorium when, due to an initial mis-measurement, there is insufficient room for a conventional back row - a sizeable percentage of the seating. Hence the current high stool and bar arrangement today.
In the best tradition we open with another former disaster, Jeeves, re-titled By Jeeves. Around the actual opening nights, I remember very little. Interview after interview after interview.
A lot of local controversy and quite a little local hostility surround the opening, I recall. Possibly because I was reported as saying that in my opinion the town is on a downward slope and would soon be full of just pubs and shoe shops.
My biggest regret really. After 40 years of carefully trying to establish an “everyone welcome” policy many people are still busily excluding themselves on the (spurious) grounds of “elitism.” What bollocks!
At the end of the decade as a 60th birthday present to myself, House & Garden. Well, we have two theatre spaces, why not use both of them? - preferably both at once.
Never dreamt the piece would ever be done again anywhere. Then Trevor Nunn who is currently in charge of the National comes to see it on the very last double Saturday performances. I think he probably enjoys the shows well enough - but my abiding memory is of him at the fête in the bar afterwards desperately trying to win a Mars Bar from the human fruit machine. “Let him win,” I keep whispering to the staff, “let the bugger win.” He runs off to his chauffeur-driven car afterwards clutching his winnings as pleased as a kid.
Settling in to the new space, I am terrified that we are going to lose the feel we had at Westwood. But no looking back now. The old school had become hopelessly cramped over those past few years as we expanded and flexed our muscles - anyway, the authorities, as they were 20 years earlier, were expressing a growing desire to see us out of the place.
From this decade, I recall in particular the startled faces of the Damsels in Distress company - booked originally for two plays, GamePlan and FlatSpin when I break it to them that I am contemplating a third, RolePlay, and how about it, are they up for a third?
Of how the company - our company - “the magnificent seven” as one critic described them then transferred to the West End. And my own fury when after a week the plug is pulled on the entire notion of the trilogy - the realisation that this had been the intention at the start - hence the total lack of advance booking. How can you have advance sales, if the tickets are never on sale in the first place? Resolve never again to premier a new play commercially in London.
Compensation for this in an unexpected off-Broadway triumph for the company with Private Fears in Public Places.
Then that’s theatre for you. When you’re up you’re up...
The panic following my stroke, not only by the loss of movement but the terror that the play ideas after 50 years would no longer keep arriving. After all the one thing you can’t allow for is the arrival of new idea. That is - you have to use the word - inspiration. The God given bit. After that it’s simply technique based on experience, a bit of instinct and sheer slog.
The joy of realising, a month or so later, that the ideas are creeping back into my head after the terrible lonely silence during those early hospital days.
And so right through to this year, my seventieth which, as my wife remarks, is gratifyingly the year of the standing ovation. First at the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s last night of Awaking Beauty - a Christmas show and a musical - my God, what’s come over me?
That night also marks my finally standing down as Artistic Director of the SJT - 50% regret, 50% relief.
Other ovations at the press night of Matthew Warchus’s triumphant revival of The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, then at The Olivier Awards to receive A Lifetime Achievement Award and finally at a Gala Performance held at the Theatre Royal, Northampton.
More memories, please ….
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.