Amateurs & Alan Ayckbourn (2014)In 2014, Alan Ayckbourn celebrates both his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his first West End production, Mr Whatnot.
During the past five decades, he has become one of the world’s most performed living playwrights by both professional and amateur companies.
Part of Alan’s enduring success has always been his popularity with amateur companies and the way the amateur community has so enthusiastically adopted his plays. It is something which is crucial to his success over the years, but what may be surprising is how the amateur community recognised Alan’s talents so early in a rarely explored aspect of his theatre career.
The first verifiable amateur performance of an Ayckbourn play took place in 1961; four years before he went into the West End and just two years following his professional writing debut.
On 4 October 1961, Scarborough Theatre Guild performed the one act play Love Undertaken at St Mary’s Parish House, Scarborough, beginning a relationship that would see Alan’s plays become a stalwart of amateur companies throughout the world over more than five decades.
In all likelihood, this was not the first amateur production either as there’s strong evidence of amateurs performing his work in February that same year and possibly even late 1960. Love Undertaken though is significant as it is the earliest Ayckbourn production to receive a license for performance from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to which historically all plays had to be submitted for approval until 1968.
It’s not surprising Alan’s ties with the amateur community go back so far, after all Scarborough’s Library Theatre was absolutely dependent on volunteers during its early years - and that there is still a Stephen Joseph Theatre today is largely thanks to Scarborough’s amateur community which essentially saved the theatre after Stephen Joseph closed it in 1965.
Stephen Joseph may have had the vision and passion to create the country’s first in-the-round company in the unlikeliest of places in 1955, but in the formative years he did not necessarily have the finances to ensure its survival and his box office, front of house and back-stage team were populated by volunteers, largely drawn from the amateur community.
Alan Ayckbourn stepped into this environment in 1957 when he joined the company as an actor / stage manager, meeting his mentor Stephen Joseph and a company that embraced the community for not only its audience but also its existence.
Foremost among that community was Ken Boden, who would become the theatre manager and alongside his wife Margaret (who ran the box office) were both well-known figures on Scarborough’s amateur scene and members of Scarborough Theatre Guild.
Alan’s first professional commission, The Square Cat, was premiered in July 1959 and quickly followed up by Love After All in December. Given both plays’ success and popularity, one can imagine the local amateur companies were queuing up to see if this exciting young writer would work with them. Obviously head of that queue were Ken, Margaret and Scarborough Theatre Guild, for whom Alan would specifically write at least four plays.
The first play Love Undertaken was a one-act romantic comedy set in an undertaker’s office (the lead character is introduced rising from a coffin, where he has been hiding). There is no record of the success of Love Undertaken, but the following March (1962), Scarborough Theatre Guild presented a double bill of one act plays by the author, Follow The Lover and Double Hitch. The former is a comedy about an older couple who each believe the other is having an affair with someone younger. Enter two young detectives hired separately to investigate the alleged infidelities by each spouse, who naturally fulfil the prior suspicions of the couple. Alan’s close ties with the group apparent here as he took on the role of the young detective opposite Ken and which would later lead the playwright to declare any actor should be wary of performing with children, animals and Ken Boden!
Double Hitch was also a comedy in which two honey-mooning couples find themselves double-booked into the same decrepit holiday house and their fractious attempts to resolve this. There is evidence to suggest this was the very first Ayckbourn play to be performed by amateurs early in 1961 or possibly late 1960. Double Hitch would also have an extended life as it was performed at least twice more in drama festivals including the in-the-round festival which Stephen Joseph set up in 1960 in Scarborough.
The final play for amateurs (that we know of) was discovered in a Scarborough loft in 2007 but was probably written as early as 1958 before being offered for performance in the early 1960s. The Party Game is a character study set at a house party, which stands in stark contrast to anything else Alan was writing in this period. Notably Margaret Boden, who was a frequent director for the Guild, turned the play down and it was never performed. This was eventually rectified in 2010 when the first public reading of the play was given by, appropriately, an amateur company when the participants of an Ayckbourn event read it at Scarborough’s Public Library, former home of the Library Theatre.
As far as is known, Alan did not write any more plays specifically for amateurs, although tantalisingly there are a couple of unproduced Ayckbourn plays in archive from this period, Relative Values and Mind Over Murder, which possibly might have been intended for amateur production. By the end of the 1960s though there was no real need for Alan to write any more plays for the amateur market. The success of Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves in London led to an insatiable demand from repertory and amateur companies for Alan’s plays, the former demand also feeding the latter. The popularity of these and all that followed quickly saw Alan become one of the country’s most performed playwrights and his archive holds many letters from amateur companies often practically pleading to be allowed to stage the new Ayckbourn almost as soon as the play had professionally premiered!
However, these four long withdrawn one-act plays began a relationship between Alan Ayckbourn and the amateur dramatic community which more than fifty years on has grown far more than Alan Ayckbourn could ever have imagined or foreseen.
That his plays have become so embraced by and popular with the amateur community is something of which he is extremely proud of and which he hopes will continue for many more decades to come.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.