SJT at 60: spoilt for choice

All the eyes of the theatre world might be on Edinburgh at the moment, but for those northerners who’ve stayed at home there’s been another big thing: the 60th anniversary of the legendary Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sadly, I didn’t make it to the day when all three theatres (their current site and their two predecessors, the library and Westwood) were open for celebrations, but the main attraction for me was the plays. I even had to do some complicated and cunning travel plans to fit them into my busy summer schedule.

This year, their summer season consists of reprises of some of the famous theatre’s greatest hits of the last six decades. And Cox and Box. Oh. But never mind, the rest of the line-up looked very tempting. And with the three headline shows done over the summer, let’s have a roundup. I’m not going to do a detailed critical analysis of these plays because they’re all huge successes that don’t need my help, but I’ll quickly chip in what I thought.

If you only had time to see one show, I think the prime choice has to be The Woman in Black. Even against the high standard of this season’s offerings, this one wins by a convincing margin. After Alan Ayckbourn, this is probably the biggest impact the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s had on the wider world. It originally began as a studio play commissioned to an unknown Stephen Mallatratt, back in the Westwood era when the studio theatre doubled up as the restaurant, and even then only really served the purpose of filling the programme. Who’d have thought?

The strangest thing, though, was that even though this play is the second most successful stage play after The Mousetrap in the West End, it owes its success precisely to the bargain-basement nature of the original performance. Had someone tried transferring the book straight to Drury Lane, it might have been a razamatazz extravaganza with special effects. a cast of dozens and a swamp on stage. Instead, it was a cast of two men: our hero Arthur Kipps, and a younger actor re-enacting his tragic tale, and the set is little more than an old theatre. Everything else was done through sound and lights, to produce something far more terrifying than any megabudget blockbuster could achieve.

But there’s one downside to the success: even though its successful enough to fill 500+-seater theatres year in year out, it’s a play really suited to in intimacy of its original stage. Which is why I’m pleased to say that this version, with the original director Robin Herford and father-and-son actors Christopher and Tom Goodwin, is the best of the three I’ve seen. The experience of watching this in the small McCarthy auditorium uncomfortably close the horror is so much better than the stalls of Darlington Civic or Newcastle Theatre Royal. So my only regret is that they don’t do like this more often. I’m sure they could do a tour of venues this size, and it would make a terrifying play even more terrifying to more people.

Now let’s go to Neville’s Island. After Ayckbourn and The Woman in Black, the third most important thing they’ve probably contributed to theatre is Tim Firth, writer of Calendar Girls and plenty of other thing that make you one “Oh, he wrote that? And that as well? And that?” He’s had hits in plenty of places other than Scarborough, the Neville’s Island was a major breakthrough.

The simple premise is that on a dreaded corporate bonding campaign trip, team leader Neville maroons his team on an Island in lake Windermere (a result of over-analysing instructions he mistook for cryptic crossword-style clues). With him is Angus, who spent hundreds of pounds on outdoor survival equipment he doesn’t need, Roy, the office Christian, and Gordon, the joker who swiftly reveals himself as the bully. The choice of four men and no women was deliberate – this play was intended to be how the four men behave in front of each other without any women around. Had there been a woman, they would have behaved differently and it would have been a different play.

Scene from Neville's Island, with an obtrusive red and white set.Let’s get the annoyance out of the way: Henry Bell and designer Lucy Weller’s choice of set. When the SJT have had floating canal boats on stage, I was looking forward it seeing how they’d do the shore of an island in a lake. If a set that complex that would blow the budget, the theatre in the round is still suited to a minimalist set – but not this minimalist. Not a plain red and white lino, and I’ve no idea if the red bit of the floor was meant to represent something different to the white bit. When I’m used to so many great sets in this theatre, I cannot understand what this set was supposed to achieve.

royLuckily, Henry Bell more than redeems himself with the directing. The blocking, sound and lighting are all managed so well that after 15 minutes you stop noticing the weird choice of floor. As does the transition from the comical incompetence at the beginning to the dark ending when tempers finally snap. The play was cast very well and all four actors did Tim Firth’s characters full justice, but the star of the show was surely Jamie Chapman as Roy. He creates a cheerful evangelical exterior for most of the play, only for this flimsy exterior the crumble in the face of Gordon’s cruelty to show the wreck he really is. Overall, is another play that SJT can be proud of, both the play itself and the writer who got his big break through them. And in spite of the strange choice of set, Henry Bell remains true to the spirit of the production.

Finally, it would be unthinkable to have a 60th birthday season without an Ayckbourn classic, and they’ve gone for Confusions, Ayckbourn’s set of five popular short plays. And until very recently (with Farcicals and Roundelay), they were Ayckbourn’s only five short stage plays (plus a sixth play semi-written for television).

I will admit I’m not as enthusiastic about Confusions as I am about other Ayckbourn plays. Okay, this is against the very high bar that Ayckbourn has created for himself, but I always felt Ayckbourn is stronger when it avoids the stereotype of gentle middle-class farce. In actual fact, very few of his plays – even his early ones – fit into this stereotype, but Confusions is less successful at avoiding this. My favourite play of the five is Between Mouthfuls, which is a great stand-alone piece about two couples in a restaurant, told entirely through what the waiter hears and learns of both sides of an affair. Mother Figure and A Talk in the Park also make decent stand-alone plays with ideas that would exhaust themselves in something longer. But I’m one of these people who thinks that Drinking Companion and Gosford’s Fete feel out of place as one-acts – they struck me as story arcs that would have sat better as scenes in longer plays.

All the same, Confusions is still good fun, with Alan Ayckbourn’s usual farce on the surface and pathos underneath. And, of course, there’s no better place to see Ayckbourn than in his own theatre. The usual bane of Ayckbourn plays is directors who don’t get what they’re directing – something we can safely avoid when Ayckbourn himself is doing it (although on the rare occasion someone else has directed an Ayckbourn at the SJT, they’ve do a good job too). But the big advantage is always seeing the play produced as it was meant to be seen, in the round, with a creative team who gets the round. I did find it a bit odd to have invisible food and drink used in Between Mouthfuls, when the rest of the plays used a completely naturalistic set, but that’s only a minor niggle.

For me, the greatest achievement of Confusions will be Roundelay, which did what Confusions aimed to do, only better, especially the interlinking. But it’s still a satisfying way to complete the SJT’s anniversary big three. This isn’t quite the last we’ve heard of Ayckbourn, because we’ve got his new play, Hero’s Welcome, coming up shortly, and it looks like it’s going to be an interesting one. In the meantime, it may be an effortless summer with the SJT reviving old hits, but the fact they’re spoilt for choice is a testament to their achievements so far. Good work for the first 60 years. Best of luck for the next 60.

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