Sunday, February 12, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1964 - 1965

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn joining the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957. Alan has been indelibly associated with the company since that time as actor, writer, director and Artistic Director.
To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.

60 Years At The SJT: 1964 - 1965
Away from Scarborough, away from the Library Theatre, 1964 was a year of highs and lows for Alan Ayckbourn.
It began with the news that his most recent play, Mr Whatnot, would transfer from the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, to the West End; his first play to do so. It was a key part of Alan's decision to give up his acting career that year to concentrate on playwriting and directing.
It would end with Mr Whatnot having been a two week disaster in the West End and on the back of some of the worst reviews he would ever receive, Alan taking a full time job at the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer in Leeds and considering whether to leave theatre for good.
“The universal lambasting it [Mr Whatnot] got from the London critics sent me scurrying for cover to the BBC where I became a Leeds-based radio drama producer for five years.... I joined the BBC with no thoughts of writing again - certainly not for London or the stage.”
Alan Ayckbourn in one of his final roles as a professional
actor in The Rainbow machine at the Victoria Theatre.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
And yet from the ashes of what is, arguably, his most significant West End failure, came the seeds of his first major success and a return to the Library Theatre in Scarborough for the first time in three years.
"I went back to the drawing board. A few weeks after that debacle, I had vowed never to write another play; but dear Stephen Joseph came and told me to have another go and try to write ‘a well made play’."
Mr Whatnot had been a very experimental and daring piece for the young playwright, which Stephen Joseph had admired. But he also had reservations and offered Alan a simple piece of advice which he has since offered to many other fledgling writers: "If you want to break the rules of theatre, he said, it's very useful to know what the rules are. Breaking them by accident can lead to all sorts of trouble later."
So in 1965, Alan began work on a 'well-made play' for the summer season at the Library Theatre, that would meet Stephen's criteria of being "a play which would make people laugh when their seaside holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their land-ladies."
Except this was Alan. Despite being commissioned in October 1964, when Stephen rang in February 1965 enquiring how the play was going, he had not written a single word.
Nor by April.
Nor by May....
With the play scheduled to open in July, Stephen tried to push matters along by asking for a play title. When none was forthcoming and needing to advertise the summer season, he suggested one to Alan, Meet My Mother.
"That night I sat up till 4 a.m. trying to think of a play which might possibly suit that title and finally decided it wasn't very inspiring. I 'phoned back the next morning and, on impulse rather than anything else, asked if the proof copy of the poster could be amended to read Meet My Father. It was bolder and had a good ring to it."
A publicity postcard for the Library Theatre featuring a scene
from Alan Ayckbourn's Meet My Father.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
There was at least now a title, if nothing else. Now he just had to write the play.
With just two weeks until the start of rehearsals and still no play, Alan and his wife, Christine, rented out a holiday flat in Collingham to pull something out of the fire. Not that this was unusual, every hit Ayckbourn play you can name between 1965 and 1986 was generally written to the latest possible deadline of rehearsals - and occasionally into the rehearsal period!
With a deadline looming and a neighbour's cat called Pamela - which had adopted Alan as a comfortable resting place - on his lap, he began work on Meet My Father.
"One quiet midnight Pamela and I sat down to write. I remember little of this period... but I do know that whatever good qualities the piece has are almost entirely due to this pressure. The devious plot was the result of sheer frenzy and the dialogue, of tearing haste."
The play was written in just over a week and despite not being convinced of its qualities, Alan posted it to Stephen but stayed out of contact with him convinced he would reject the play. When they finally did meet - bizarrely in Manchester when Stephen was supposed to be directing the play in Scarborough - Stephen's only comment was "You've written a very funny play."
Peter King, David Jarrett and Catherine Naish in Meet
My Father at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Although that was not to say it was a perfect play in Stephen's eyes. For come the opening night, Alan sat down in the audience and saw his play for the first time. Or a somewhat condensed version of it.
"[Stephen cut] rather a lot of important bits, because he didn't seem to mind where it was cut as long as it was cut. When he did this you would point that there were some important bits of information missing, but he'd just say: 'Don't worry, people. They'll follow it.' and they generally did."
Stephen actually cut a quarter of the play, but the production was extremely popular and when the West End producer Peter Bridge came to see it, he asked for the script with a view to optioning it.
Alan sent him the uncut version.
By the end of the summer, negotiations were under way for a West End transfer with a contract in archive showing Alan was paid £100 in advance of royalties by Bridge for the play. Alan was once again enjoying success in the theatre after his 'wobble' following Mr Whatnot.
A statement from the Ayckbourn Archive showing Alan
Ayckbourn's earnings from meet My father including the
advance from Peter Bridge for the West End transfer.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Meet My Father was the play which changed everything. It would not open in the West End for another two years, but became a runaway success and launched Alan into the national spotlight.
And the play itself became a classic, much loved and revived ever since.
Except the for the title.
No-one really liked Meet My Father and after much thought it became the rather more famous, Relatively Speaking.

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