Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn's Plays For Amateurs

With the forthcoming world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play Neighbourhood Watch, it’s worth noting another Ayckbourn anniversary is also fast approaching.
October will mark the 50th anniversary of the first verified amateur production of an Ayckbourn play.
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 the following five decades.
Now it’s worth noting this was almost certainly not the first amateur production of one of Alan’s plays - there’s strong evidence of a production as early as February 1961 and unsubstantiated reports of a production in late 1960. However, Love Undertaken is significant as it is the earliest production of an Ayckbourn play which received a license for performance from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to which historically all plays had to be submitted for approval until 1968, and to which we can pinpoint a definite date and place of production.
It’s not really surprising Alan’s ties with the amateur community go back so far, after all Scarborough’s Library Theatre was absolutely dependent on volunteers, largely drawn from the town’s amateur theatricals. Stephen Joseph may have had the vision and passion to create the country’s first in-the-round company in the unlikeliest of places, 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.
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. He, like many others in the town, embraced both this exciting new theatre and, soon after, a rising writing talent.
Alan’s first play, The Square Cat, was premiered in July 1959 and quickly followed up by Love After All in December. Given the plays’ success and popularity, one can imagine the 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 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, 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 first Ayckbourn play to be performed by amateurs earlier in 1961 or possibly 1960, but unlike Love Undertaken, nothing substantive. 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 to encourage amateur companies to try their hand at working in this space. 
The final play for amateurs (that we know of) was discovered in a loft in 2007 but was probably written as early as 1958 before being offered for performance in the early ‘60s. 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 the participants of the Ayckbourn Weekend event in Scarborough at the 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 though. 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 most performed playwrights by both professional and amateur companies in the country (which stills holds true today) and the playwright’s archive holds many letters from amateur companies sometimes practically pleading to be allowed to stage the new Ayckbourn almost as soon as the play had professionally premiered!
These long withdrawn plays began a relationship which fifty years on has grown far more than Alan Ayckbourn could ever have imagined. Five decades ago in Scarborough, it’s hard to believe that Alan Ayckbourn would ever foresee amateur companies around the world performing his plays and that his writing would have become as embraced and popular as it now is.
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and the administrator of the playwright’s official website
This is a revised and abbreviated version of an article originally published in 2009.