Summer at SJT: Screenplay, Boy Who Fell Into a Book, and Cox and Box

Poster image from ScreenplayTurning my attention to my backlog of post-Edinburgh reviews, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, as always, has had a busy summer, with three plays on the go over August. This visit was a memorable one, not least because – in the theatre – someone managed to mistake me for Alan Ayckbourn. I kid you not. (I won’t embarrass the individual concerned by saying who he was or how this misunderstanding came about.) But enough of that, back to the plays. One is a new venture going in the right direction, another is a tried and tested venture, but the third is going in the wrong direction.

I’m going to start this roundup with Screenplay, which may not be the most high-profile of their shows, but it is the most interesting – and arguably the most important. This is the flagship event of the new writing programme from recently-appointed associate director Henry Bell. This arose from a script call last year, and a group of short-listed writers were invited to write a short play with an over-arching theme of cinema since the opening of the original Scarborough Odeon. (It also had to use the cast of Cox and Box, which I will get to later.) From this, four ideas were chosen, developed into four plays (either as four stand-alone lunchtime pieces or a quadruple bill), and here we are. So, how does it do?

The first thing to remember about new writing projects that you should treat the play as a work in progress rather than expect miracles on stage. A new writing play that is only average can still be a worthwhile project if it’s a stepping stone to one or more of the writers producing a masterpiece in the future. Having said that, there’s no need to make that allowance here. It’s a decent set of plays with interesting stories and no clear weak links in the four pieces. A theme that runs through the four plays is how much attitudes change through the decades. In Jimmy Osbourne’s Am Empty Seat, back in 1936, it’s a high formal occasion, with people dressed like they’re at the opera, in a deferential society where the shame of being a WW1 deserter still hangs over people. By 1973, in Kate Brower’s Double Feature, times are changing, and a husband, who expects his younger wife to do the traditional thing and be a housewife and mother, cannot come to terms with her wanting to go to art college and not have children.

Scene from The Illicit DarkBy 1998, it’s two girls dressed like they’re going clubbing – yes, times change. This play, Bit Part, is about two sisters who were extras in Little Voice, one level-headed, the other an ambitious and sadly deluded drama queen. That’s a promising calling card from writer Claudine Toutoungi, who has a new play, Slipping, coming to the SJT very soon. But out of the four writers, the most promising début came from Isabel Wright with The Illicit Dark, set in 1954. The other three plays ended up stylistically similar with two people talking and the key plot driver is their emerging backstories – that’s not a fault of the other three writers, it’s just something that’s hard to avoid with a brief this tight – but in spite of these constraints, Wright managed to produce a surprisingly dark story with a disturbing twist at the end. With such a vivid imagination, I’m really keen to see what other ideas she has up her sleeve.

My only real complaint was the sound and projection between the plays, which I just found garish and didn’t seem to add anything. Other than that, it’s a good set of plays in their own right that was certainly worth a visit. However, that’s only half the story. The other half – in my opinion, the more important one – is how does this fare developing new writing talent? That is a little less straightforward.

One observation I had is that all four of these writers appear to already had substantial links with professional theatres, and would have stood a good chance of getting their work on stage with or without SJT’s help. I don’t see how Henry Bell could have done things any differently – it was an open script call with hundreds of submissions so it was probably inevitable that the lucky four would have had previous opportunities – but it’s still four less opportunities for writers seeking their first break. My main reservation, however, is asking writers to write to such a constrained brief. Okay, SJT has their balance sheets to think about, and a set of four plays to a theme is likely to sell better than a set of four unrelated plays (a similar restriction existed with the available actors), but I’ve always felt that the more restrictions you put in a writers’ brief, the harder it gets to come up with an idea for a masterpiece. (I’m aware that some writers consider a restrictive brief to be a source of inspiration, but even that restricts your pool of talent to writers who think this way.)

The fact that the four writers came up with a decent set of plays is a good testament to the collaborative process, but this raises another question – with so many similarities between the four plays, just how much of it is really the original ideas of the writers, and how much of it is the director steering the writing into a stylistically uniform production? Without knowing exactly what went on in the script development, it’s hard to say, but it would be a shame if it turned out that Henry Bell had ended up turning their plays into his plays.

My advice to Henry Bell is that this approach to new writing is fine, but this should be complemented with other ways of supporting new writing too. To some extent, he’s doing this already, with the new play Slipping being free of the artistic constraints of Screenplay, but the more diverse the opportunities on offer, the better. But it’s definitely good start, and it bodes well for the future.

Meanwhile, back downstairs, it’s been the tried and tested surefire success that is Alan Ayckbourn. His new play this year is Roundelay, but prior to that he’s done a sort-of revival to his family play The Boy Who Fell Into a Book. Plays for children were a comparatively late addition to Ayckbourn’s catalogue – his earliest attempt was the disastrous Christmas versus Mastermind, described by Ayckbourn himself as the worst play he’d ever written, and it was 26 years before he tried again. But since then, he’s done quite a few, and sometimes the ideas he tries out in a children’s play find their away into the grown-up plays later. This isn’t quite a revival. because it’s been changed from a play to a small-scale musical. (The play also features a garish title in the poster that looks like it was knocked up in 20 seconds on Microsoft WordArt, but I’ll let them off that.)

Boy and detective have tea with the Big Bad WolfThere’s a no question this has been a hit in Scarborough. Ayckbourn plays invariably go down well, but I can’t think of another play where so many people have told me how good they thought this is without being prompted for an answer. The play follow a boy who is so engrossed in reading a book about his hero detective Rockfist Slim in the middle of an attempt to escape from his dastardly nemesis Monique. Things get complicated when it emerges the only way out is to travel through the bookshelf and through the stories of the other books. That’s a twist when you’re finding your way through Robert Louis Stephenson or the Brothers Grimm, but it gets particularly bizarre when you’re going through Chess for Beginners or the Wubblies (a book left on the shelf by a baby sister).

I enjoyed the production, although I didn’t share the overwhelming enthusiasm of my fellow theatre goers. I certainly can’t fault Ayckbourn’s wild imagination here, but once we’re established that you’re going from book to book, there’s not much room to keep people guessing as to what happens next. The SJT has an excellent reputation for putting on small-scale musicals in the Round, and this play certainly suits a musical adaptation, but it lacks any songs that were particularly memorable – Ayckbourn varies his musical collaborators (this musical adaptation was written by Paul James, Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus), but my favourite Ayckbourn musical collaborator remains as Denis King. I have little to fault with the staging however – that was Scarborough’s theatre in the round at its best, where they achieve with lighting, sound, movement and trapdoors what other producers would have done with lavish and expensive sets.

I can certainly recommend this play the its target audience of children at the age when you’re encouraging them to read. If you don’t have children, it’s still a nice play to watch, but you’d probably enjoy vanilla Ayckbourn more. Still, this play was almost certainly the inspiration for the outstanding Improbable Fiction, so you can’t complain.

And then comes Cox and Box: Mrs. Bouncer’s Legacy. This is from Chris Monks, whose first first five years as the new Artistic Director have brought us everything from new plays to forgotten plays to his own take on Shakespeare to community participation plays, but his greatest asset of all has been his musical productions such is his new settings for Gilbert and Sullivan and his outstanding re-telling of Carmen. So I now find myself asking how it is possible that a prestigious artistic director – who I have so much respect for – can produce something this disappointing?

Cox and Box was originally Box and Cox, a comic one-act play where Mr. Box and Mr. Cox both rent a room from Mrs. Bouncer, who, unknown to them, puts them in the same room, what with one working days and another working nights. When they find out, they also discover that they are or were engaged to the same woman, whom they either claim for themselves or try to palm off on the other depending on what the inheritance situation is, before finally discovering they’re long-lost brothers, and they live happily ever after. This was adapted into a one-act comic opera by Arthur Sullivan, who is best known as one half of a very famous aforementioned duo, but he also had quite a decent composing career in his own right (such is this cracker). The conundrum there’s been ever since is what do you pair this with to make a full evening’s entertainment, and Chris Monks’s solution was a sequel.

To give credit where it’s due, there was nothing wrong with the performance of Cox and Box itself. The usual high production standards of Monks and musical director Richard Atkinson were there. The only thing which looked a bit odd was playing Mrs. Bouncer with a man and Box and Cox with women. Ah, but, this was all leading into the sequel, 150 years later, in the same room. The inspiration was all of these Polish migrants who live in tiny cramped accommodation, and this time it’s two Polish sisters sharing the same room, and this time it’s the landlord who’s in the dark about this. Once again, long-lost blood relations will be re-discovered. Such a promising setting for a second act – and such a let-down when it begins.

Alarm bells starting ringing when the landlord enters with his Union Jack waistcoat as a proud member of UZIP, which is a parody of UKIP. Not a parody of the real UKIP who have just had their conference in Doncaster, but the a parody of the absurdly fictitious version that primarily exists in the heads of Guardian readers. You know, the party that want to chuck all Europeans out of Britain five seconds after leaving the EU, reinstate the British Empire, give everyone a free gollywog and make Godfrey Bloom king of Bongo-Bongo Land. The landlord also has a beer-belly and pervs of his tenants. Just to make sure no-one mistakenly gets the impression that there’s such a thing as a reasonable member of a party Chris Monks doesn’t like.

And it gets worse. My faith in a redeeming feature went unanswered. If you’re tagging on a sequel to someone else’s work, you do need to keep some consistency with style. I cannot think of any circumstances when Arthur Sullivan would have penned lines as banal as “He’s got us by the short and curlies.” And the attempt to work “Boks and Cocks” into this play was so lame it hurt. One sister is good at boxing, or “boks” in Polish, and the other in on the verge of discovering a new cure for illnesses by testing a vaccine on male chickens, before she was forced into hiding by the Europe police. Yes, that’s right, apparently Nigel Farage would rather everybody died of cancer and AIDS. You bastard Nigel, you bastard!

Look, this is coming from someone who thinks that UKIP talks shite at least 80% of the time, but I don’t come to theatre to have opinions rammed down my throat, especially when it relies on such uninspired lazy stereotypes of your opponents. Evidently some people do like this, if the four-star review in The Guardian is anything to go by, but all that proves is that it’s a niche market with people who like having their own prejudices spoon-fed back to them. But would the same people tolerate an ideological opposite, say, a stage version of Richard Littlejohn’s To Hell in a Handcart? I think not. Sure, I’m against any kind of political censorship in theatre, but is using peddling the opinions of artistic directors really a good use of public funding of a national portfolio organisation?

But even if we decide anything goes in political theatre, it’s not even good political theatre. At the risk of yet again raising the usual partner of Arthur Sullivan, compare this to the words of W. S. Gilbert. He could easily be an ideological soulmate of Chris Monks. The Mikado parodied British perception of foreign countries, and Utopia lampooned the idea that colonialism was all nice and fluffy. The difference is that W. S. Gilbert’s satire was incredibly intelligent, and often so subtle that the people watching didn’t realise he was taking the piss out of them. Contrast this with Mrs. Bouncer’s Legacy and there’s no contest.

I really hope that is not the future of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, or even Chris Monks’s writing, because they have done so much better than this before, and they can do so again. If the SJT theatre persists with its efforts for new writing, I am optimistic for the future. If they carry on with opinion plays, they’re doomed.

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