Friday, September 25, 2015

Archiving Ayckbourn: Relatively Speaking

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

Relatively Speaking (1965)
Relatively Speaking (or Meet My Father as it was originally produced at the Library Theatre, Scarborough) is, of course, Alan Ayckbourn's break-out play.
It was a huge success in the West End and the practically universally positive reviews essentially made Alan an overnight theatre sensation in 1967.
Copyright: Daily Mail
There's a lot of interesting items relating to the play (a selection of which can be found on the Relatively Speaking Archive page here), but this small article is a favourite.
This marks the first time the royal family came to visit an Alan Ayckbourn play and the Daily Mail reported them seeing Relatively Speaking on 23 May 1967 (just two months after it opened at the Duke Of York's Theatre).
Members of the royal family became frequent visitors to Alan's plays over the years and apparently the Queen Mother was a big fan until the mid-1980s, when it was apparently felt the plays had become slightly too dark.
Legend has it that Bernard the Gnome from the West End production of Time & Time Again went to one of the Queen Mother's residencies during the early 1970s.
There was a huge amount of interest in Alan and Relatively Speaking after its successful opening in the West End and this article shows just how much of an impact Alan obviously made.
Relatively Speaking opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 8 July 1965 and was directed by Alan Ayckbourn. More details about the play can be found here.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Archiving Ayckbourn: Mr Whatnot

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

Mr Whatnot (1963)
Mr Whatnot marks a key point in Alan Ayckbourn's long career theatre. It marked not only his first play to open in the West End, but the response to that production almost drove him from theatre permanently.
Alan Ayckbourn & Bob Peck during rehearsals in Leeds.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
The critical response to the 1964 West End production of Mr Whatnot was so bad, Alan joined the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer in Leeds between 1965 and 1970 initially with the intent of leaving theatre for good.
Fortunately, he continued to be involved with the Library Theatre in Scarborough and would find success in the West End in 1967 when Relatively Speaking opened in London.
It was whilst in Leeds though, Alan made a significant discovery in the shape of the actor Bob Peck, who he employed as an actor for the BBC, at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, and who he later worked with at the National Theatre.
Most intriguingly, he directed Bob in an amateur production of Mr Whatnot by Leeds Art Theatre at Leeds Civic Theatre in 1968; Alan was patron of the company and when one of their productions fell through, he offered to direct Mr Whatnot for them.
The photo shows Alan directing Bob Peck as Mint (or Mr Whatnot) for the production, the year before the actor joined Alan's company in Scarborough.
Of the actor himself, who died at the age of 53 having built an impressive career on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, on television - notably in Edge Of Darkness - and in films such as Jurassic Park, Alan Ayckbourn notably said: "I found Bob Peck in a cellar in Leeds. I forget how we both got there. I soon discovered an actor of strength, extraordinary natural technical ability, wit and truth. I've searched in cellars without success ever since for more Bob Pecks."
Mr Whatnot opened at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, on 12 November 1963 and was directed by Alan Ayckbourn. More details about the play can be found here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Earliest To Latest: The Road To The Divide

The Divide is Alan Ayckbourn’s latest work, an epic narrative for voices in five parts which will be presented as a one-off gala reading on 27 September as part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
The Divide is a satire of the sexes set in a post-catastrophe UK where men and women are segregated by the Divide. Told through documents and diaries, the piece brings to mind authors as diverse as Margaret Attwood and George Orwell with a touch of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Of course this isn’t the first time Alan Ayckbourn has ventured into the future in his writing and his interest in it stems from a young love of the golden age of science-fiction writers.
“I began to love the allegorical stories they told, when they were using science-fiction as an allegory of, if we continue thus, then we will finish up here. This particular realm of science-fantasy wrote about the present day from a future stand-point, which - of course - is a very strong part of science-fiction. Reflecting the present day or extending the trends of the present day to its logical conclusion.”
The influence of such writers can be seen throughout Alan Ayckbourn's career from plays as diverse as Henceforward... to Communicating Doors, Comic Potential to Body Language.
And as his latest work is about to be unveiled, it's interesting to note that this genre - from an archivist's perspective - is where it also all begins.
What is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript written by Alan Ayckbourn is called The Season and is held by The Borthwick Institute at the University Of York.
Written no later than 1958, The Season is a rare surviving example of Alan's writing prior to his first professional commission. It is a strange love story set over four scenes and four seasons, which moves from Edwardian England into a post-apocalyptic landscape.
An extract from the first page of Alan Ayckbourn's The Season
Copyright; Alan Ayckbourn
Alan has frequently mentioned he recalls writing approximately nine plays before he was commissioned to write The Square Cat, most of them comedies but "with a couple of exceptions which had been rather morose pieces." The Season falls into the morose category.
Described on its frontispiece as a "drama in four scenes", The Season begins in Spring in Medieval times, before moving through the seasons and time into Edwardian England and then the future.
It follows two characters, The Traveller and The Girl and the relationship which develops between them until the third act when The Girl, now The Woman, is close to death and the world apparently about to be engulfed by an apocalypse.
The final scene sees The Traveller meeting with The Girl, but apparently for the first time, venturing forth into a winter wasteland which has apparently been unseen since the catastrophe. The pair agree to explore the world together and set off into the snow.
Of course, the final scene could all be a pretentious metaphor for death from a 17 year old writer - and the scene alludes to death being like winter - but as the play mentions emerging from vaults into the world, it seems more likely to be a vision of a future after a catastrophe.
What's interesting about the final scene is - from today's perspective - the presumption would be this is a nuclear winter, but when Alan wrote the play, the term had not even been invented and there had been relatively little research into the after-effects of a nuclear war. Science-fiction writers - possibly read by Alan himself - had though explored this territory.
The Season is a fascinating oddity, although it offers no indication of the writer Alan Ayckbourn will become aside from the imagination of the piece. It is of historical significance though not only for being the earliest Ayckbourn play, but also one which shows an interest in a genre which will permeate his work from Standing Room Only (1961) through to The Divide (2015).
Just as The Season finishes post-catastrophe in a strange new world, so his latest work, The Divide, begins post-catastrophe in a world where the sexes are segregated and the world is no longer as it was.
But to discover more about this strange new world, you'll need to see The Divide.

The exclusive semi-staged reading of The Divide takes place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on Sunday 27 September from 3pm - 9.30pm (with three intervals and a supper break). It will feature Alan Ayckbourn's company at the SJT plus special guests. Tickets are priced at £60 (including picnic supper), £30 and £15 and can be booked via www.sjt.uk.com or by calling 01723 370541.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Archiving Ayckbourn: Christmas Vs Mastermind

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

Christmas V Mastermind (1962)
Alan Ayckbourn wrote two self-dubbed disastrous family plays for Christmas early in his career. The first was Dad's Tale (1960) and the second, Christmas Vs Mastermind, was written in 1962 whilst Alan was resident writer, director and actor at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.
Copyright: Evening Sentinel
The play was even more badly received than Dad's Tale and Alan Ayckbourn remembers it being a complete disaster, as he once noted in an interview with the play's director and long-time Artistic Director of the venue, Peter Cheeseman.
"It [Christmas V Mastermind] happened to coincide with a winter of record cold. We did not realise then that children’s audiences need most exclusive matinee scheduling and put it on in the evening to audiences of two or three wrapped in blankets with thermos flasks, etc. I can distinctly remember seeing the actors’ breath on stage as we had only rudimentary boilers.”
As the newspaper article above also shows, the play was also beset by other issues including the actress Heather Stoney splashing cleaning fluid into her eye and having to wear an eye-patch during performances.
Christmas V Mastermind is notable for featuring Heather Stoney - who would go on to be Alan's second wife - and marks the only time Alan acted opposite Heather in one of his own plays. She would go on to appear in a number of Alan's world premieres when he returned to the Library Theatre in Scarborough and, later, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
Christmas V Mastermind opened at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, on 26 December 1962 and was directed by Peter Cheeseman. More details about the play can be found here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ayckbourn's Hero's Welcome Opens

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play Hero's Welcome opens tonight at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
This is the playwright's 79th play and the 75th to be premiered in one of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's three venues since it opened 60 years ago. The play is running until 3 October and is running in repertory with the playwright's revival of his classic play Confusions.
Richard Stacey & Terenia Edwards
in Hero's Welcome
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
The play follows a soldier Murray returning to Hadforth, seventeen years after leaving the now mayor, Alice, at the altar. Despite returning a hero, few of his friends seem particularly happy to see him back.
Murray’s intention of settling down with his new bride threatens to stir up all sorts of old rivalries and resentments. Suddenly the couple, in search of peace, find themselves once more in the firing line.
Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon & Stephen Billington
in Hero's Welcome
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
Hero's Welcome is directed by Alan Ayckbourn and stars Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Terenia Edwards, Emma Manton and Richard Stacey. The production is designed by Michael Holt with lighting by Jason Taylor.
The Hero's Welcome company, plus special guests, will also present a semi-staged gala reading of Ayckbourn’s epic new work, The Divide. in an exclusive performance as part of the SJT's 60th anniversary celebrations on Sunday 27 September.
Elizabeth Boag & Terenia Edwards in Hero's Welecome
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
Following its Scarborough premiere, Hero’s Welcome will tour in-the-round with Confusions to the New Vic, Newcastle under Lyme from 6 to 24 October and to The Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere from 3 to 14 November.
Hero's Welcome can be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until 3 October. Tickets are priced from £10 to £24.50 and available from the Box Office on 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com.
Richard Stacey, Emma Manton, Terenia Edwards, Stephen
Billington, Russell Dixon & Elizabeth Boag in Hero's Welcome
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew

Friday, September 4, 2015

Archiving Ayckbourn: Standing Room Only

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

Standing Room Only (1961)
Standing Room Only was the final play Alan Ayckbourn wrote under his pseudonym Roland Allen (and, bizarrely, is also regarded as the first he wrote as Alan Ayckbourn due to the author's credit on a revival of the play) and is the first of his future-set plays.
Copyright: Daily Telegraph
As the article above, published in the Daily Telegraph on 11 September 1961, also shows, it could have been the first Ayckbourn play to transfer to the West End.
Standing Room Only opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961 and was quickly optioned by the producer Peter Bridge, who was making a name for himself as a risk-taking producer in London.
The story has always gone that Bridge optioned the play after he saw a glowing review of the play in The Stage newspaper whose headline questioned "Is there a manager to drive this bus to Shaftesbury Avenue?"
Ironically, this was not quite the objective review one might expect of The Stage as it was written and submitted by the production's stage manager Joan Macalpine!
The play was never produced in the West End though, despite numerous re-writes and plans by Peter Bridge for a host of star names to appear in it. It was similarly optioned for television by ITV's Armchair Theatre, but this was also never produced.
The article is notable as it marked the first news story about Alan Ayckbourn in a major newspaper and, theoretically, marked the beginning of his relationship with the West End - even if this particular production came to nothing.
Standing Room Only opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 13 July 1961 and was directed by Stephen Joseph. More details about the play can be found here.