Before I embark on Edinburgh Fringe coverage, let’s round up another main season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Apart from a programme very heavily defined by its very famous former artistic director, the other unusual feature of the SJT is that whilst most theatre wind down for the summer as people turn their attention to holidays and/or the Edinburgh Fringe, in Scarborough the programme ramps up.
There is one change this year though – until last year, the SJT ignored the Edinburgh Fringe as it moved into peak summer season. This time, however, they have decided to do both, with a full-on summer season at Scarborough complemented with their own Edinburgh excursion. But I am going to go through the plays in (roughly) chronological order in which they were shows, so we begin with:
The 39 Steps
In the literary world, John Buchan’s spy novel is regarded as one of the seminal spy thrillers. In the film world’ Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the books is regarded as one of the seminal spy films. But in the theatre world, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is regarded as one of the silliest hits to have graced the West End. Well, to most of the theatre. Some people somehow missed all of this going to the play expecting a deathly serious edge-of-your-seat thriller. But the surprise, when it turns out to not be what they expected, quickly turns into a pleasant surprise.
This stage version is an adaptation of the Hitchcock film rather than the original book, although faithfulness to the original story is quite a long way down the list of priorities here. The main attraction is recreating scenes scenes from the movie with a cast of four: our hero Richard Hannay, one woman playing all the love interests, and two people playing all the other parts. So when Hanny leaps on top of a train crossing the forth bridge, this is recreated by teetering on the seats with his coat flapping in the wind. When he wanders through the Scottish Highland and the radio gives out his description, saying how handsome he is – in fact, the toll of the wilderness would make him look rugged, and even more handsome – he stops to listen and feed his ego. And then there’s a fun of switching characters this rapidly, something every few seconds. Sometimes, the fast changes are deliberately botched for a laugh – such as the jarring chord as two shifty spies (complete with lamppost) hurry to the spot where they were lurk shiftily, or the mention of Mister Memory followed by a quick whisper to the man currently playing another character “it’s you”.
Like the play same time the year before, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, The 39 Steps is an ultra-safe choice of play – few would think a parody than ran for nine years in the West End would be anything other than hit again. This differs in that it has a 2 male + 2 female cast instead of the 3 + 1 in the original, which is fair enough, but performance-wise, when an actors is switching through oodles of characters of both genders it doesn’t really matter. The most notable difference, however, is staging the production in the round instead of the original end-stage. That can be a sticking point – for Little Voice I felt that this was the weak point in an otherwise good production. This play, however, takes to the round naturally and easily passes off a play that was written that way all along.
The closest I can come to finding fault with this production – and this is going into real nit-picking – is the scene with the speech in the village hall. I don’t know whether this was the decision of the writer or the director, but the slow humour of a doddery old man taking ages to deliver a speech didn’t really fit with the fast-paced humour of the rest of the play. But what’s most important of all is how the ensemble of four deliver a slick production. I never doubted Paul Robinson would pick this play if he didn’t think he could pull it off, but he doesn’t disappoint and what must have been a fiendishly difficult piece to produce comes off flawlessly. This is an easy win for the Stephen Joseph Theatre – the real challenge comes with the new writing – but as a crowd-winner it could not have done better.
Build a Rocket
The 39 Steps may have been Paul Robinson’s safe bet, but this is where he puts his efforts into new writing, with a month-long run at Edinburgh followed by a week at Scarborough. (N.B. This review is adapted from my Edinburgh Fringe coverage. If you’ve already read that, this doesn’t say anything new.)
To get any mismanaged expectations out of the way, no actual rockets are built in Build a Rocket. Instead, this is the story of Yasmin (Serena Manteghi), a teenage girl in Scarborough who gets herself pregnant thank to a dalliance with a lecherous loverat of a local DJ. Or it might be someone else who’s the father, but that’s little consolation either way. In fact, there’s very little consolation anywhere. She comes from a household with hardly any money as it is. Yasmin’s mother can barely help herself, let alone her daughter. Her chance of getting good GCSEs was squandered by the distraction over her boyfriend before he turned out to be a lecherous scumbag.
Other plays like this might serve as a commentary on teenage deprivation. Might even attract criticisms of poverty porn. But Christopher York’s play has something in common with another Robinson-directed play I saw, And Then Come the Nightjars: the story continues after the main event. It only when Yasmin has no choice but to make something out of nothing when things start to turn around. Not immediately it will still be a long hard struggle, but by the day of her son’s A-level results, they will. As always, solo plays usually need to be something more than an actor standing telling a story, but that is delivered handsomely here, with a highly-choreographed movement and sound plot serving the play well.
On the whole, this was a deserved success at Edinburgh, so it came as a pity that a minority of reviews criticised the play for “poverty porn”, unfairly in my opinion. It is true that the first half of the play does play heavily to a stock teen pregnancy, but surely the point of the play was to build up the stereotype and then tear it down, rising up again when other writers would have ended the story at rock bottom. Sure, you could have written a script where Yasmin is a working-class girl with a good education and a stable family who do everything to support her, but that would be a different story. My worry is that if this knee-jerk condemnation of negative working-class portrayals persists (this wasn’t the only play that got this unfair treatment), the the stories won’t be written and the stereotypes will go unchallenged.
But we are here to review the play and not the reviewers. There is one other thing I wish to highlight here. When Paul Robinson was announced as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, with his record of new writing, one question I had was whether he would look locally for it, and if so, how local it would be. This matters. I can think of some theatres (won’t say who) who make a big deal of bringing culture to areas of low cultural engagement, who proceed to ignore all the local talent on offer and import it from elsewhere. The Stephen Joseph Theatre has done the opposite and engaged with the people of Scarborough at all levels, from beginners’ writing classes to the professional production and everything in between. Build a Rocket is a success story for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but more importantly a success story for looking beyond the major cities and appreciating what’s on your doorstep. A lot of other theatres could learn some lessons here.
As I’ve said many times before, there is a widespread misconception that Ayckbourn plays are nothing but undemanding light entertainment; for anyone who’s seen Ayckbourn plays from the mid-1980s onwards, that’s clearly not true. But even the early the early Ayckbourns are more than the polite suburban farces what they’re often mistaken for, because not far beneath the often ludicrous situations set up in the stories, there’s always some desperately sad sub-plot. Now that I’ve seen Joking Apart, I have to rate this as one of the cleverest of his early plays. Not because it’s three interlinked plays running together, or a single beginning that forks into sixteen endings, or switching between reality and imagination or any of the many other thinks Ayckbourn is famous for achieving, but because the story manages to portray things going so wrong against a backdrop of love, happiness, generosity and success.
Joking Apart was written in response to people who said “Are you ever going to write a play about a happy couple?” So meet Richard and Anthea, a happy couple who are love through the twelve years the play spans. With life so good to them, they are keen to share their fortunes with everyone around them – and yet whoever they share it with changes their lives for the worst. Although it must be said their friends are to large degree architects of their own misfortune. Bare-competent vicar Hugh drives an early wedge with his marriage to Louise when he prefers Anthea’s cooking to that of his own wife’s. Brian keeps bringing increasingly younger girlfriends over to the house, with seemingly all relationships doomed the moment she realises she’s second choice to Anthea. Most painful is Sven, the man who will never admit when he is wrong, even when he obviously is, aided and abetted by Olive who dotes over her never-wrong husband. But when Sven is finally exposed as not the world-class tennis player he claimed to be, he doesn’t cry foul – he takes defeat in far more self-destructive way.
And yet … Richard and Anthea are not entirely blameless for their peers’ predicaments. As a couple, they have disagreements, which they quickly resolve and move on. But for all their caring and kindness, there is just a hint of showing off. It’s usually impossible to tell one motive from the other, but it sometimes shows through – taking down the neighbours’ fence to share their bigger garden was a small clue, and Richard’s left-handed tennis was a bigger giveaway. But ultimately, Richard and Anthea might be something to be envious about, but it is the others who allow themselves to be destroyed by this … Actually, coming to think of it, I think Ayckbourn’s plays might be a catalogue of bad life decisions to avoid. Oh Christ, I hope I never spot one of mine.
I am obliged to question one bit of staging – the tennis court is an important part of the play, but I do have some doubts over over the netting, which may have obscured the view of anyone sitting in those seats. (Anyone who was sitting there, feel free to let me know if it was an issue.) But even if it does, that cannot detract from the Stephen Jospeh Theatre once again making a success on an Ayckbourn play. Alan Ayckbourn is not the only person who gets how to direct his plays, but outside of Scaborough it’s always a bit of a lottery whether you get someone who understands it properly or mistakes it for crowd-pleasing froth. Whatever direction the Stephen Joseph Theatre takes with the new writing, understanding Ayckbourn better than any other theatre company looks set to be one of its greatest assets for a long time to come.
Better Off Dead
Although Ayckbourn has gone into the pattern of an old play and a new play each summer for the last few years, there’s one break with practice this year. Usually, there is a heavy overlap between the cast of the plays, but this time, the actors from Joking Apart mainly have the minor and cameo roles in Better Off Dead. The lead role by a long way is Christopher Goodwin as Algy Waterbridge, a veteran author with thirty-two books to his name and a habit of picking too many battles for his own good.
We begin with Algy writing in his summer-house whilst a pair of mismatched detectives skulk around outside waiting for their quarry. They, of course, are figments of his imagination, with the lead detective being the great Tommy Middlebrass, who solves every crime and loves his drink, just like he did in the last thirty-two books in the series. But the Middlebrass books aren’t what they were. Ever since a botched TV adaptation, he’s been on the slow decline, and not just his books – his publisher treats him as an afterthought, he is slowly losing his wife Jessica to dementia thinks he’s the gardener, and his PA Thelma is better at running his life than he is. Things start to change when he has an interview with possibly the world’s worst journalist, whose background research is little more than a scan of the internet, and he can’t even get that right. But his incompetence only truly comes to light when he mixes up Algy’s interview for his obituary.
On the night I went, Better Off Dead had an excellent attendance – even by the standards of Ayckbourn plays in Scarborough – of a predominantly older audience. Too often an older audience is used in a derogatory context for a drama group putting on yet another Agatha Christie, but I got the impression here that this was an audience drawn by a play that speaks to them. The play is billed as “an elegy to the written off”, and in that context there’s a lot to relate to, from the snooty publisher who looks down on him as yesterday’s news, to a very touching scene where Jessica – still mistaking Algy for someone else – talks about how much she loved he husband she thinks has died.
However, this appeal to an older generation came at the expense of a wider appeal. There’s nothing wrong with aiming plays at a certain audience, but there were some missed opportunities in the meandering storyline to make this play work on more levels, with a number of interesting plot developments stopping dead before they’d really begun. There could have been so many interesting twists had the premature obituary had Algy discovered what the says about him when they think he’d passed on. The 33rd Middlebrass novel also took an interesting twist where our hero mixes up the case he’s trying to solve with the capers of Sillie Millie (a story he once wrote for his daughter that he’s just had a heated discussion over) – I thought we might have an encore to the detective story in Improbable Fiction that so brilliantly mirrored Vivvi’s search for the perfect man – but this was never taken further.
With plenty of writers appealing to certain demographics for plays, there’s no reason why Ayckbourn shouldn’t be allowed to do the same – but it could easily have been more than this, and the fact that it wasn’t is a shame. But there can be little doubt that Better Off Dead succeeded in what it set out to do. This summer season, like last year’s season can go down as a good all-rounder, with good audiences in terms of both reception and numbers. So the question this raises is will Paul Robinson stick with a safe formula that we know works, or will he take new risks next year? That will be an interesting one to see, but for now, well done, another good job done.