Another autumn, another programming of Ayckbourn plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Sticking with the long-standing pattern of the last decade, there were two Ayckbourn plays this year: a revival of a classic in the summer – another one from the height of his commercial success – and a new play in the autumn. But wait … I have a third Ayckbourn in the list, that’s officially not affiliated with the SJT, but in practice has a strong connection. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let us begin with the two plays on at Scarborough.
Astute though Alan Ayckbourn is with his observations of human character, there is one thought that frequently goes through my head when I see an unflattering character in one of his plays: “I pity the poor bastard who this was based on.” Off-hand, I can’t think of anyone this applies to more than poor old Bernard, artistic director of the worst puppet show in the world. Bernard thinks – or has at least deluded himself into believing – that his Christmas plays for the kids are a delightful annual family tradition. For everyone else, it’s notorious, with simple fairy tales padded out to snails pace; add in the numerous complex scene changes (sixteen in this year’s performance of The Three Little Pigs And Their Wives And Families) and the play turns into an endurance test. Who was this person? Who did these awful puppet plays in real life? The answer surprised me.
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.
Skip to: The 39 Steps, Build a Rocket, Joking Apart, Better Off Dead
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. Continue reading
SKIP TO: Taking Steps, A Brief History of Women
It took a few years to settle down after Alan Ayckbourn left as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, but a pattern has finally emerged: the earlier summer season is where his artistic director successor does his stuff, with a revival of a successful earlier Ayckbourn introduced later in the summer, and then a new Ayckbourn play in September and October. 2017 was no exception. For once, I couldn’t catch them in Scarbourough, but luckily, I can count on a transfer to the New Vic that’s now in easy reach of me.
It is difficult to tell how new Ayckbourns will turn out in advance. Ayckbourn has a lot of tricks up his sleeves, but a lot of his new plays have been using old tricks in new ways. Don’t dismiss that – when it works well, it’s outstanding, but it’s always a bit a of pot luck involved to see how the new offering turns out. But the revival on offer is something that I recommended, not just because I know and like the play – but because this play is one of the few where it’s important to see it done by someone who knows how it’s meant to be done. That’s where we shall begin. Continue reading
Skip to: The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes, No Knowing
Damn. December is usually my catch-up month where all the theatres show pantomimes, which I avoid like the plague. However, this year, there have been an unusually high number of non-pantomimes in December I’ve wanted to see. I’ve already reviewed How Did We Get To This Point?, which was unexpectedly outstanding. Now for the two other standard plays I saw in December, both of which were pleasing.
The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes
The most remarkable thing about this studio piece at Live Theatre is its critical reception. I don’t often mention other people’s reviews in my own reviews (most of the time, I avoid reading the other reviews completely to avoid influence on mine). However, this time the acclaim was unprecedented. Five stars from the Guardian. Local reviews need treating with a bit of caution, but it’s big achievement for any play to get that rating in a national newspaper; for a studio production from a first-time writer to get it (let alone get a reviewer up at all), it’s phenomenal. Continue reading
REVIEWS: Skip to: Henceforward …, Karaoke Theatre Company, Consuming Passions
Hey, Alan, aren’t you supposed to be having a rest? He stepped down over six years ago, but perhaps to cover a Chris Monks-shaped hole in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s programme, he’s directing three plays – four if count the lunchtime shows as two. And he’s doing the Christmas production too. He was never normally this busy when he was Artistic Director. I suppose his final season as Artistic Director back in 2008 might have been a little busier depending on how you count things, but really, what happened to this retirement of his?
The good news, of course, is that Ayckbourn-heavy seasons in Scarborough rarely disappoint, and this is no exception. So let’s get stuck in.
Ayckbourn trivia 1: Alan Ayckbourn wrote and directed Henceforward … during his two-year sabbatical at the National Theatre. Yes, even when he was wowing crowds at the National with A Small Family Business and other plays, he still found time to produce at Scarborough. Ayckbourn trivia 2: Henceforward … was a return to a genre he’d not visited ever since a very early (and now abandoned) play Standing Room Only, that being science fiction, with a heavy emphasis on a dystopian future, breaking a twenty-five run of plays dominated by middle-class suburbia. He’s done other decent science fiction plays since, but this remains his most acclaimed, and this year it returned to Scarborough just shy of its 30th anniversary. Continue reading
Hero’s Welcome might be more “vanilla” Ayckbourn than the title suggests, but it’s still an excellent play showing Ayckbourn is no spent force.
One of the biggest bits of shock news of northern theatre this year has been Chris Monks’s unexpected departure from the Stephen Joseph Theatre after only six years. With both artistic and executive directors leaving in such a short space of time, the theatre has an uncertain future ahead of it. Luckily, the one constant force in this affair is Alan Ayckbourn, who in spite of having stepped down as artistic director himself in 2009, still produces new plays and revives classic plays. This is the one thing they can rely on.
Although Ayckbourn is still writing at the same rate he’s always done, after the excellent My Wonderful Day in 2009 there’d been a bit of a lull, with plays that were either sameish, or original ideas that didn’t quite work out. This changed in 2014 with Roundelay, a very skilled set of five interlinked plays. And one year on from that it’s time for Hero’s Welcome that does not disappoint.
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? Continue reading
Five one-act plays performed in a random order might look like a novelty, but the interlinking in Roundelay makes this the best thing Alan Ayckbourn has done in nearly five years.
Observant readers to this blog have noticed that, so far, I have never put an Ayckbourn play at the SJT into my What’s Worth Watching recommendations. Which might seem a bit odd to people who know that I’m a big Ayckbourn fan. There are two reasons for this, and the first is that every new Ayckbourn play gets loads of publicity and I prefer to concentrate my plugs on more obscure writers who need the attention. The second reason, however, is that it’s difficult to tell which new plays will be the must-sees. Alan Ayckbourn’s not had any totally new ideas for some time, but that’s okay because he keeps putting together old ideas in new ways and can still produce masterpieces, the last one being My Wonderful Day in 2009. Since then, however, we’ve have plays with ideas that didn’t quite work out, plays that did work out but had obvious derivations from old ones, and combinations of the two.
Truth be told, I was sceptical about Roundelay. This was billed as five one-act plays, so already I wondered if we were headed for a re-hash of Confusions. The difference from its predecessor was that the plays are to be performed in a random order, with the plays interlinked in a way that works in any order. I wasn’t sure about that at all. We know from Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests trilogy that he’s the master of interlinking – and yet, for all the cleverness of linking three plays with a concurrent timeline and the same casts, I was never convinced that made the plays much better for the audience. Would Roundelay be a piece that took great writing skill yet provided a mediocre play? Would the random order just be a novelty? One might think so if the lukewarm reviews in the broadsheets are anything to go by, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say this is the best new Ayckbourn play I’ve seen for nearly five years.
Turning 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?
Four Ayckbourn plays have been on for this summer’s season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Different plays will suit different people, but if you can only pick one, Time of My Life was the best.
When Alan Ayckbourn announced his retirement as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 2009, some people incorrectly thought that meant he was giving up the writing and directing too. This wasn’t the case at all; the Stephen Joseph Theatre had always done a mixture of Ayckbourn plays and other people’s, and Ayckbourn was going to continue writing and directing. The only change was that he was handing over the artistic programme to someone else, and in effect, it wasn’t so much the departure of Ayckbourn but the arrival of Chris Monks. Nevertheless, Ayckbourn did use the opportunity to take the occasional play of his elsewhere, such as the Orange Tree in Richmond and the Royal & Derngate in Northampton. One might even think he’s use the opportunity to take things easy.
But this year, not a chance. Since his retirement, Ayckbourn has done one new play and one revival each year, and this year, he’s taken on the lunchtime one-act plays as well. Far from Ayckbourn having a breather, instead Chris Monks is using Ayckbourn as a break from his own (admittedly very busy) schedule. So the summer 2013 season is a revival of the classic Time of My Life, new play Arrivals and Departures, and a pair of one-acts known collectively as Farcicals.
Out of the four plays on offer, I think I’d go for Time of My Life as the play most worth seeing. I’d previously read this as a script, and I wasn’t convinced this would work as a play. But, like last year’s Absurd Person Singular, having now seen it on stage, my doubts are settled. It may not be one a Ayckbourn’s most well-known plays, or one of his most innovative. But it is easily one of his saddest plays. There is nothing unusually distressing or harrowing about the play – just a beginning where a seemingly happy family share a perfect moment in time, and wondering how this could possibly fall apart the way it does.