Ayckbourn At 70: The Square Cat (2009)This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published in a souvenir programme to mark the Royal & Derngate Theatres' Ayckbourn At 70 celebration in 2009. It explores the history of the playwright's first professionally produced play, The Square Cat, written in 1959.
2009 marks Alan Ayckbourn’s 70th birthday.
It also marks another very significant milestone for the playwright.
In 1959, Alan’s first play The Square Cat was staged at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, beginning a career that as of 2009 spans 73 plays and 50 years.
Alan never had any grand intentions to be a playwright though, at the time of his first commission he was just an actor at the Library Theatre.
“I have never made any decisions; they have always been made for me. I could look back on my life and say I planned it that way, but I didn't plan to be an actor, nor a director, nor a writer. They ran out of writers!”
That’s not to say he suddenly became a playwright. Alan had been interested in writing for many years and had been practising, inspired by his favourite writers. The results of which he had occasionally shown to his mentor and the founder of the Library Theatre, Stephen Joseph.
“Certainly I was tapping out plays in my early teens and had written a good half dozen before I had my first one professionally produced.”
When it came to commissioning Alan’s first play, Stephen was well aware of Alan’s nascent ability and had the perfect riposte for him when the opportunity presented itself.
“Stephen had the complete, some would say lunatic, disregard in allowing me to write for him. The story goes that I came off stage one night and said that I could write much better than what I had just acted in and he told me to get on with it then."
The offending play was David Campton’s Ring Of Roses, although for many years Alan mentioned it was John Van Druten’s Bell, Book And Candle, as he did not want to upset Campton, a friend and contemporary at the Library Theatre.
Stephen was always keen to encourage new writers, although this also had other benefits for the company as Alan recalls there was funding to encourage new writing.
“The Arts Council gave us £300, more than I’d ever seen in one place before. I thought, this is money for old rope.”
Stephen’s challenge was made during the winter season at the Library Theatre in 1958, when Alan was also in rehearsals for the company’s brief winter tour.
The play he was rehearsing was by and being directed by a relatively unknown writer who had just suffered his first West End flop. Harold Pinter had been invited to Scarborough to direct The Birthday Party following its critical mauling in London. This would only be the second time it had been professionally staged and featured Alan in the role of Stanley. The play may not have directly influenced The Square Cat, but its author certainly inspired Alan.
“I got fascinated by his use of dialogue, his use of words, the structure of sentences. You can see even now what’s actually rubbed off on me from him.”
The Square Cat was written during the tour, but it was not a sole effort. Alan’s partner and soon to be wife, Christine Roland, worked together with her offering advice on the play.
“I stomped off home and, with the help of my then wife, who was a very judicious editor, wrote a play under a joint pseudonym, Roland Allen. This was the time of skiffle and coffee bars and the play was an unashamed launch for my own acting career.”
The pseudonym Roland Allen (Christine Roland / Alan Ayckbourn) was used by Alan for his first four plays, although Christine was only involved in helping The Square Cat and Love After All.
The Square Cat was patently a showcase for him both as a playwright and actor with Alan playing two roles; it has never really been emphasised Alan spent the play quick-changing between the rock ‘n’ roll star Jerry Wattis and the mild-mannered Arthur Brummage.
“I came on in act one and stayed on, with all the best lines, until the end, and I danced and sang and played the guitar - none of which I was very good at. It was an immensely practical way to start. I learned a great deal from seeing the same bits die every night."
It opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959 and was a big hit with the summer audiences. The surprise success and demand for tickets - apparently it was booked to capacity for all performances - led Stephen Joseph to cancel a week’s performance of David Campton’s adaptation of Frankenstein (which had not been well received) and scheduled a second week for The Square Cat’s second repertory run the following month; the first time a play in repertory had run for two consecutive weeks at the venue.
For Alan, the over-riding memory was the pay-cheque.
“It made me forty-seven quid, I remember, more than I earned in several weeks. It proved very popular because it was what it was - a farce, with no pretensions to anything else - and it did give people quite a laugh.”
Conventional wisdom has it The Square Cat was never performed again, but it was produced once more during the company’s 1959 winter tour. Alan was unavailable to reprise his role, having received his National Service call-up (deftly avoided by being signed out after just three days) and Barry Boys took on the role for the play’s swan-song.
It has never been performed again and the script has never been published. Although Alan suggested for many years all copies had been destroyed, it is surprisingly profligate. Originals of the play are held by The University Of Manchester, the British Library and by the playwright himself.
The only other public glimpse of The Square Cat was in 2005 when on the anniversary of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 50th anniversary, Alan agreed to let the first scene of the play be read as part of the theatre’s celebration events.
And while we look back at The Square Cat and the many plays Alan has written since, the playwright continues to look forward with his latest, My Wonderful Day all set to open later this year in Scarborough, where it all began 50 years ago.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.