Alan Ayckbourn & Harold Pinter (2013)This article was first published in the May 2013 edition of the Stephen Joseph Theatre Circular magazine.
It is Christmas 1958 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. In rehearsal is the first play by one of the most significant British playwrights of the 20th century.
The playwright is directing his own play and amongst the cast is a young actor who will go on to make just as significant waves in British theatre.
Freeze the moment and consider: the actor is Alan Ayckbourn; the play is The Birthday Party; the director is Harold Pinter.
It’s just another extraordinary moment in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Fifty years ago, Harold Pinter’s first play The Birthday Party was famously savaged by the critics when it opened in the West End.
Less famous is the story of how the play was rehabilitated in Pinter’s eyes thanks to the faith of Stephen Joseph and a second production which began life in Scarborough.
“[The Birthday Party was] written by a young man I had known when he was a student at the Central School, it had been performed at the Lyric Theatre, in Hammersmith, and, though provoking interesting notices, it had been withdrawn after five days. The play baffled me, but it also attracted me strongly and I asked the author to produce it for us. He agreed. And the company embarked on a fascinating production of The Birthday Party, directed by Harold Pinter. The actors enjoyed working with him. He knew precisely how they felt about the play, and precisely how to help them. He seldom tried to explain “obscurities”, but instead showed the actors how to do the action, thus giving even the most baffling parts of the play a conviction and organic logic of their own.”
Harold Pinter was 20 when he first met Stephen Joseph. Having dropped out of the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts after a year, Pinter enrolled at the Central School Of Speech And Drama in 1951, where Stephen was a lecturer. Although Pinter only stayed on for two terms, his relationship with Stephen would span many years and Pinter’s biographer, Michael Billington, argues that Stephen became an “influential father-figure.” Although Pinter was predominantly a jobbing actor at the time, his passion was already for writing which Stephen was keen to encourage.
“’You write then, do you?’ said Joseph. ‘Yes,’ said Pinter. ‘Well, hope you go with that,’ said Joseph in a tone of warm encouragement that Pinter still remembers.”
Pinter did ‘go with that’ and also stayed in touch with Stephen Joseph. In 1958, The Birthday Party became his first full-length professionally produced play. It opened at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, on 28 April before touring to Wolverhampton and Oxford, generating predominantly positive reviews. The producer Michael Codron – who produced many of Alan Ayckbourn’s London productions between 1971 and 2002 – then transferred the production to the Lyric Theatre, London. The rest is history.
Brutally mauled by the critics, who failed to appreciate and largely understand the piece, The Birthday Party closed five days after it opened. Ironically, the one review which might have saved the play came in too late, as the noted critic Harold Hobson had not been able to attend the press night.
“I am willing to risk whatever reputation I have as a judge of plays by saying that The Birthday Party is not a Fourth, not even a Second, but a First; and that Pinter, on the evidence of this work, possesses the most original, disturbing and arresting talent in theatrical London.”
The reviews were dispiriting for Pinter who began to question both the play and his own abilities, despite the fact that post-London, the play began to attract more favourable notices. One of the most significant articles saw the critic Irving Wardle championing the play in Encore magazine and naming Pinter as one of the country’s most promising writers.
Stephen Joseph read this article and contacted Pinter, inviting him to direct The Birthday Party with his Scarborough-based Studio Theatre Company. He was offered free-rein with the only proviso being a limited budget and the existing acting company. The play would join the company’s repertory for three weeks during its winter tour for performance at the Theatre Centre, Birmingham, and at Vaughan College, Leicester. Pinter was grateful for the opportunity and accepted the chance to direct the play as he saw it, having frequently been at loggerheads with the London production’s director Peter Wood.
The playwright apparently met the company for the first time in a pub in Brewer Street, Soho. The actors were less than impressed and Alan Ayckbourn, in his second year with the company, thought the script “was absolute gobbledygook.” The company returned to Scarborough for the short winter season at the Library Theatre and three weeks of rehearsals for The Birthday Party. The cast included Alan (Stanley), David Campton (Petey), David Sutton (Goldberg), Rodney Wood (McCann), Dona Martyn (Meg) and Faynia Jeffery (Lulu), all of whom were initially dubious of their new director.
“When he [Pinter] arrived in Scarborough he was in a very defensive, not to say depressed state. We had probably three weeks to rehearse. I remember asking Pinter about my character. Where does he come from? Where is he going to? What can you tell me about him that will give me more understanding? And Harold just said, ‘Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what’s there.’”
Apparently the story did not end there as Michael Billington relates: “Undeterred, Ayckbourn pursued him to a pub - most Pinter stories involve pubs - where he intended to press the point, but before he could, a man rushed in claiming to have killed his mother-in-law by ramming her up a chimney. Pinter had to hear the man's story, and Ayckbourn never did discover where Stanley came from or where he was going. Nor do we know what happened to the man, or his mother-in-law.”
This extraordinary response was not rudeness on Pinter’s part - both he and Ayckbourn got on well - it was merely a reflection of his belief that all an actor needed was in the text. This arguably influenced Ayckbourn’s writing as his plays also root the characters entirely in the play text.
Despite this initial wariness, it soon became obvious to the company that Pinter totally believed in the play and Ayckbourn noted “his passion and certainty drove us through.”
“One got, first of all, extremely suspicious of him, because we thought he was a complete charlatan, and then as we began to proceed there was a passion behind his eyes… in his eyes anyway his play had been completely misdirected before and the fact that it [The Birthday Party] had got a severe roasting merely justified his self-belief, which seemed quite strong. So we were swept along by him. When we opened in Birmingham he proved gobsmackingly right. I think by that time we were convinced, although we didn’t know what the audience would make of it.”
The play was produced in repertory at the winter tour’s first two venues although audiences, Stephen Joseph noted, were not high: “It played to very thin houses in Birmingham, aroused some protest in Leicester.” In a sense, this was not the point as the tour was not dependent on the production. It typified Stephen’s desire to champion exciting, new writing, and to also challenge audiences.
“The play made no sense and we didn't understand it until we went on stage and we just electrified the audience. We just came off stage and stared at him!”
The production was well-received by both the audiences and critics and Stephen believed the play “was particularly well produced by the author”. The company’s opinion of the playwright had been transformed and Ayckbourn noted: “For those of us fortunate enough to work in collaboration with Pinter, it was very apparent that here was a new and very arresting talent.” More importantly for Pinter, the production restored his faith in both the play and his writing abilities; following this, the playwright would achieve a very rapid and extraordinary level of success and fame.
Sadly, this was Pinter’s only collaboration with the Studio Theatre Company, although several years later he wrote to Stephen expressing interest in directing a play at Scarborough as he had enjoyed the experience so much. Stephen’s untimely death in 1967 probably put paid to that; Pinter did however visit the theatre when Alan directed The Caretaker in 1962.
This is not the end of the story though as it has a suitably strange twist, befitting a Pinter play. Although rehearsed in Scarborough, The Birthday Party was never produced in the town. But in his book Theatre In The Round, Stephen makes an obscure note: “The opening scene was later presented at a charity midnight performance in Scarborough, where, sandwiched between variety acts it was completely successful.”
What Stephen was referring to was a charity performance at Scarborough’s Futurist Theatre at midnight on Wednesday 2 September, 1959, in aid of World Refugee Year. The Library Theatre’s contribution was to present the first scene of The Birthday Party. Incredible as it is to imagine, it was performed between acts by the likes of Frankie Howerd, Molly Sugden, Bill Maynard and Martin Granger’s Puppets.
“It was terrible - all the comics refused to get off, they were doing Frankie Howerd jokes, but we had him there as well. My company put on the first act of The Birthday Party and the audience loved it for the first original jokes they’d heard all evening.”
Pinter’s short association with the Library Theatre did have other more longstanding ramifications. At the time of rehearsing The Birthday Party in Christmas 1958, Alan Ayckbourn had just been commissioned by Stephen Joseph to write his first play and Alan has made no secret of how his experiences with Pinter were inspirational as he took his first steps as a playwright.
“I understood him a lot more after that [The Birthday Party] and what I liked about him was his use of language, almost poetry, highly stylized.”
Fifty years on, it is extraordinary to imagine Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter working together in Scarborough’s Public Library at the start of two such significant playwriting careers.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.