Friday, March 10, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1973

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: 1973
The first full year after Alan Ayckbourn became the full-time Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough was dominated by a single major theatre event.
Throughout his six decades within theatre, Alan has emphasised that the great strength of theatre is it is live; to that end he has created theatre events which cannot be replicated - at least not with the same effect - in other mediums.
The earliest example of this is in 1973 when he created what is arguably his most famous work, The Norman Conquests.
Alan Ayckbourn stood on a roof in Scarborough
for no apparent reason in 1973.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Although it was never his intention to seriously tackle such a huge challenge so early in his tenure as Artistic Director. Like many things in his life, it came about more because of circumstance than design.
"At the end of the [1972] Scarborough season the local press boy came bounding up the stairs and asked what I'd got planned for next year. I said dunno, might finish up with a trilogy. So there was a note in the paper, "Trilogy Eagerly Expected." I didn't put a denial in. I thought since the Gods have said that, let's have a go. "
Sadly for such a crucial and retold moment in theatre history, it's not actually known how much of this story is accurate! There's no record of the newspaper article in archive and although it's been claimed by several publications to have been their story, the actual article has - as yet - not come to light. In all likelihood, it was probably published by the Yorkshire Post or the Yorkshire Evening Press.
Whatever the case, it caused a bit of a stir at the Library Theatre whose Board was completely unaware of or prepared for such an idea! Alan had grasped the nettle though and had already considered most of the serious obstructions and issues he would have to surmount when writing such a piece.
"When I first considered the trilogy, I was aware that it would be optimistic to expect an audience like this [predominantly tourists] necessarily to be able to give up three nights of their precious holiday to come to our one theatre. Any suggestion that it was essential to see all three plays to appreciate any one of them would probably result in no audience at all. Similarly, were the plays clearly labelled Parts One, Two and Three, any holidaymaker determined to play Bingo on Monday would probably give up the whole idea as a bad job. The plays would therefore have to be able to stand independently yet not so much that people's curiosity as to what was happening on the other two nights wasn't a little aroused. Second, as I have said, it should be possible to see them in any order. Third, since we could only afford six actors, they should have that number of characters."
A publicity shot for world premiere of The Norman Conquests
with Rosalind Adams, Alex Marshall, Christopher Godwin & Janet Dale .
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Alan's solution was to write three plays set within different locations of the same house over a single weekend featuring the same characters. As he thought about how to write the plays, so the theatre began to advertise them - but not as we know them today. Firstly, they were not advertised as a trilogy and secondly, there is no mention of the name The Norman Conquests in any advertising material. In fact, this title would not be given to the play cycle until it transferred to London in 1974.
The plays were written simultaneously over a week in May 1973 and posed a challenge Alan would not have to face again until he wrote House & Garden in 1999; for how to write three plays which are so intricately connected?
"I wrote them in time sequence. So I started with Norman's meeting with Annie in the garden, which is the earliest moment in any of the plays, and I finished with the latest, also in the garden. But I went from the garden to the dining room, then to the living room and back to the garden, and so on. I had the unique experience of finishing at one point two plays - Table Manners and Living Together - on the same night... which I shall probably never do again. But having written them cross-wise, one had no sense of judgment how they would work downwards: would they work as individual plays? So that was a gamble. For once one has seen any one of the plays, it's very difficult to divorce yourself to judge any of the others. They all have different and interesting shapes."
He also had to allow for the fact that his leading man, Christopher Godwin, was unavailable for the first week of rehearsals and so Norman is absent from the first scene of Table Manners, which was the first play to go into rehearsal.
The plays were launched on 18 June 1973 at the Library Theatre with Fancy Meeting You (later retitled Table Manners), which was followed by Make Yourself At Home (later retitled Living Together) on 25 June and Round And Round The Garden on 2 July.
Alex Marshall, Christopher Godwin & Rosalind Adams in the
world premiere of Make Yourself At Home (Living Together).
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Finally able to see and appreciate the fruits of his labours, Alan realised the plays naturally built upon each other but also had developed their very own individual personalities.
"Climaxes, comic ones naturally, seemed to abound everywhere. Hardly had I finished dealing with the fury of Reg's game (Living Together) than I was encountering a frenzied Sarah trying to seat her guests (Table Manners) or Ruth beating off the advances of an uncharacteristically amorous Tom (Round And Round The Garden). Strangely too, each play, although dealing with the same characters and events, began to develop a distinct atmosphere of its own. Table Manners was the most robust and, as it proved onstage, the most overtly funny. Round And Round The Garden, possibly due to its exterior setting, took a more casual and (as it contains the beginning and end of the cycle) a more conventional shape. Living Together has a tempo far slower than anything I had written before and encouraged me, possibly because of the sheer over-all volume of writing involved, to slacken the pace in a way I had never dared to do in any comedy."
The plays were an enormous success, especially as audiences realised there was more than one part and very quickly, the sold out board began appearing outside the venue as reported by The Stage newspaper on 9 August 1973.
"In the first six weeks of the summer season of theatre-in-the-round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy of plays - Fancy Meeting You, Make Yourself At Home and Round And Round d The Garden - has broken all box office records at the theatre and will continue in repertoire until 15 September."
Norman ruffles a few feathers in Round And Round The Garden.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
From an off-hand comment emerged one of the Library Theatre's greatest success and one of Alan Ayckbourn's most famous and acclaimed works. It would transfer to London the following year before going onto Broadway and has been revived consistently since 1973 around the world; perhaps most famously with Mathew Warchus's acclaimed revival for the Old Vic in 2008 which also transferred to Broadway.
It also gave form to one of Alan's most endearing characters - further giving shape to what became known as the 'Ayckbourn Man' who had first appeared in Time & Time Again and Absurd Person Singular - in the shape of Norman.
As to his enduring appeal and quite why such a character appears to be so attractive to women, Alan offered a reason that explained how Norman's appeal has transcended both time and social changes.
"I always think that Norman's success with women rests in the fact that he thinks he's fooling them by working the charm whereas they can clearly see straight though him but are charmed nonetheless by his artless efforts and his touching transparency. In the end, Ruth knows he loves her and he's only 'working' the other two. What she really objects to is being taken for and being made to look an idiot."
Arguably The Norman Conquests' most famous moment,
the dinner scene during Fancy Meeting You (Table Manners).
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
On the back of The Norman Conquests' success in Scarborough, It would have appeared that both Alan and the Library Theatre's star was on the rise in Scarborough. Yet just a year later, the entire enterprise was on the brink of collapse and Alan was very publicly threatening to leave Scarborough with his company.
It was to be a testing 12 months in which small town politics clashed with regional theatre and from which neither came out unscathed.

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