Articles: Harold Pinter (1958)This article was first published in the May 2013 edition of the SJT Circular.
That Stephen Joseph played a crucial role in the development of Alan Ayckbourn as a playwright is well known.
Less well known is Stephen Joseph’s connection to another giant of 20th century British theatre, Harold Pinter.
And even less well-known is for three weeks in December 1958, Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter worked together in Scarborough!
In May 1958, Harold Pinter’s first play The Birthday Party had opened in the West End. It closed after eight performances on the back of devastating reviews.
Stephen Joseph, who had taught Pinter at the Central School Of Speech And Drama, read the play noting it “baffled me, but it also attracted me strongly.” Keen to encourage innovative new work such as this, he contacted Pinter with an invitation to direct the play himself.
Pinter agreed, despite budget limitations and having to cast within the existing Scarborough company. Stephen scheduled the play for a three month tour, to be rehearsed during the company’s short winter season at Scarborough’s Library Theatre.
There Pinter came into contact with Alan Ayckbourn, an actor who had joined the company the previous year and who had not yet started writing professionally. He was given the role of Stanley but initially thought the script was “absolute gobbledegook”.
As did the company, but Stephen Joseph encouraged them to bear with Pinter, convinced the playwright had something important to say and that he could show “the actors how to do the action, thus giving even the most baffling parts of the play a conviction and organic logic of their own.”
Still, there was always that ‘baffling’ aspect and Alan famously attempted to gain some insight into his role. Pinter’s reply was probably one of Alan’s more memorable acting notes: “I remember asking Pinter, what can you tell me about him that will give me more understanding? And Harold just said, ‘Mind your own f***ing business. Concentrate on what’s there.’”
Pinter resolutely believed everything an actor needed to know was in the script - a path which Alan himself would later follow. The company kept faith with the director and despite Alan’s belief the play “was completely mad, new and weird”, Pinter’s passion won over the actors.
Once the Scarborough season had finished, the company embarked on its regional winter repertory tour with The Birthday Party opening in Birmingham and later playing in Leicester. The play was a moderate financial success but Stephen Joseph was convinced it was “instrumental in getting television companies interested in the author.”
The effect on the company and audience was more profound. Alan - who had just been commissioned to write his first professional play by Stephen Joseph - may still not have got to grips with the play’s intentions, but he realised here was something special.“The play made no sense and we didn't understand it - until we went on stage and we just electrified the audience. We just came off stage and stared at Pinter!”
Pinter would go on to become a significant inspiration and influence on Alan’s playwriting career - who notably wrote his first play The Square Cat during the same tour. Pinter also later said the production had restored his faith in the play and his own abilities. The rest was history.
Except for an unusual footnote. The Birthday Party was never performed at the Library Theatre, but Stephen Joseph wrote in 1965 the first act was performed “at a charity midnight performance in Scarborough, where, sandwiched between variety acts it was completely successful.”
In a scene that would not seem real in a Pinter or Ayckbourn play, the first act of this comedy of menace was performed in September 1959 at a midnight charity fundraiser at the Futurist Theatre. Between acts by the likes of Frankie Howerd, Molly Sugden and the Futurist Lovelies, Scarborough got its first taste of Harold Pinter.
Quite what the audience thought was never recorded!
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.