Stephen Joseph Theatre Significant Dates: January

A month-by-month guide to significant events and dates at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 1955 to the present day.

1 January:
The final winter tour under the direction of Stephen Joseph launched from the Library Theatre in 1962. Between 1958 and 1962, Studio Theatre Ltd (the company operating at the Library Theatre) toured following the end of the short winter season of plays. The 1962 tour featured Hamlet, A Doll's House, a new adaptation of David Copperfield and David Campton's The Boys And The Girls. Although a tour was planned for 1963, Stephen's decision to open the country's first permanent theatre-in-the-round venue at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1962 saw the budget for the Library Theatre in Scarborough slashed as well as the loss of most of its Arts Council subsidy. As a result, the winter tours ended in 1962 and would only start again under Alan Ayckbourn's direction in 1974. Touring was then intermittent until it became a regular annual fixture of the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 1998.

2 January: The Woman In Black closed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1988. This now infamous adaptation of Scarborough-born author Susan Hill's ghost story by Stephen Mallatratt began life as a low-budget Christmas show. The theatre's Artistic Director Robin Herford (running the theatre on a day-to-day basis whilst Alan Ayckbourn was on a two-year sabbatical at the National Theatre) decided he wanted to do a Christmas show in the 70-seat studio theatre with the remains of the season's budget. Stephen Mallatratt's solution was a two-hander adaptation of Hill's spooky novella which largely relied on the skills of the actors Jon Strickland and Dominic Letts, director Robin Herford, an ingenious sound-plot by Jackie Staines with lighting by Mick Thomas and design by Michael Holt. Despite a rough-and-ready launch and mixed reviews, phenomenal word-of-mouth led to the box office overwhelmed with demand from the next day forwards. Several extra shows were fitted in and extra chairs even squeezed into the small space. It was a phenomenal success and, of course, went onto even more success in the West End and around the world. It is now one of only three plays which has run for more than 25 years in the West End and returned to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2015 as part of the theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations. An article on The Woman In Black can be found here.

3 January: In 1961, plans to build a permanent, purpose-build theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough were put before the Town Council. The outcome was reported in the Scarborough Evening News on 3 January when the plans (costed at £50,000) were voted down by the council. It essentially marked the start of a campaign for a permanent home for the company which would not be resolved until 1996 when the Stephen Joseph Theatre - built in Scarborough's former Odeon cinema - opened.

5 January: The final play to be produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round opened on 5 January 1996. The production was Alan Ayckbourn's Just Between Ourselves, reflecting the production which also closed the company's first home at the Library Theatre in 1976. The production was directed by Robin Herford (who had been the theatre's Artistic Director whilst Alan Ayckbourn was on sabbatical at the National Theatre between 1986 and 1988) and featured Malcolm Hebden reprising the role of Neil he first played in the original 1976 production - he noted he was too young to play it in 1976 and too old in 1996!

6 January: A council meeting in 1997 brought to an end one of the most notorious chapters in the Stephen Joseph Theatre's history. When the company moved to the new Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, it was believed subsidies would be increased to reflect the company's move to a far larger venue with greater ambitions. Unfortunately, the increase to funding was negligible and by December 1996, the theatre's future was in serious doubt. Forecasting a deficit for the coming year, the theatre applied for extra funding but despite receive backing from the Arts Council, there had to be matched funding from Scarborough Council and North Yorkshire County Council. Faced with having to make existing cuts to its budget, a bitter argument erupted which was dubbed 'Luvvies Vs Lavvies' when it was suggested Scarborough Council had a choice between saving the SJT or 22 public lavatories. Led by a particularly vociferous councillor, the unsavoury debate made national headlines (and even BBC's Newsnight featured the story). On 6 January 1997, the council voted to give the theatre £50,000 extra for five years thus ensuring its safety. It also transpired that the argument was a nonsense as the theatre and public facilities were funded from entirely separate budgets and one had never affected or threatened the other.

7 January: The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round company toured to Canada in 1987 in collaboration with the British Council. The play toured was Alan's 1986 revival of his play Time & Time Again and, following a UK tour, the company (and Bernard the Gnome) crossed the Atlantic to visit Canadian venues in St John’s, Gander, Grands Falls, Corner Brook, Stephenville, Charlottetown, Fredericton, Glace Bay, Picton and Halifax. You can find out more about touring at Scarborough In The Round here.

9 January: It's not a generally well-known fact that the pre-eminent 20th century playwright Harold Pinter made his professional directing debut with Scarborough's Library Theatre company. After his first play, The Birthday Party, was mauled by the West End critics and closed after just five days, Stephen Joseph invited Pinter to direct the play himself to redress the balance and present it as the playwright intended. Pinter agreed and travelled to Scarborough in December 1958 where he rehearsed an in-the-round production of the play which featured a then young actor by the name of Alan Ayckbourn in the role of Stanley. Sadly, the production - which premiered on 9 January 1959 - was never seen in the town as it was intended for the company's winter tour and was performed only in Birmingham and Leicester. Pinter later said the production had restored his faith not only in the play but his own writing.

10 January: In 1998, Scarborough born author Susan Hill appeared in a platform talk at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Although they occur less often at the venue now, the platforms were a frequent feature of the theatre's calendar during the first few years at the Stephen Joseph Theatre after it opened in 1996. The Susan Hill platform took place to coincide with the theatre's 10th anniversary revival of Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Hill's famed novella The Woman In Black which was originally produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Other people featured in platforms that year included Tim Rice, Anthony Sher, Ruth Rendall, Jane Asher, Denis King, John Godber, Tim Firth and Alan Ayckbourn.

11 January: 2000 marked the first visit from Hull Truck Theatre to the Stephen Joseph Theatre with a visiting production of John Godber's Unleashed; following this the company has toured to the SJT practically every year since. John Godber has a close relationship with the SJT and has premiered several plays at the venue starting with Perfect Pitch in 1998. The relationship with the company actually dates back to 1973 when Hull Arts Theatre - which would become Hull Truck Theatre in 1983 - toured Waiting For Godot to the Library Theatre.

12 January: From the moment it opened in 1955, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has always had to contend with limited budgets for both its productions and the company itself. This has led to some inventive solutions to bring costs down over the decades including one of the most inventive in 1978. When the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Joking Apart opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, audiences were greeted by a real garden. The play is set in a garden - complete with most of a tennis court - and as the play was not in repertory, it was deemed cheaper to lay real turf in the round rather than artificial grass; when the play was revised in the summer of the year, artificial turf had to be used as the play was in repertory.

14 January: World premiere of Peter Robert Scott's One Over The Eight at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1992. The play followed a female cox's attempts to overcome the chauvinism of the sport to coach an out-of-shape university rowing team which had foolishly challenged Oxford to a race. The play notably included Saskia Wickham as the cox and opened shortly after she shot to fame in the BBC television series Clarissa. The play also featured Mark Addy, who has gone onto worldwide fame notably in the movie The Full Monty and the television series Game Of Thrones amongst others, as well as David Harewood, who has appeared prominently in the television series Homeland and Supergirl amongst others.

15 January: Alan Ayckbourn's supernatural play Haunting Julia has always had an interesting history as it was initially intended to be the first play to be performed in The McCarthy auditorium at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for its proposed opening in 1994 (or possibly 1995 depending on what you read); however, when the opening of the building was pushed back, Haunting Julia was premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round instead - performed in-the-round instead of its intended end-stage. For many years, the reason for this was given was the play was ready, so there was no point delaying it. However, the real reason is far more interesting and held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York. In correspondence dated 15 January 1994, it is revealed Haunting Julia would be written nine months earlier than initially intended to help the theatre. In the same month, the Arts Council announced stand-still funding (which as so many theatres facing this today will tell, is a cut in real terms) resulting in a "perilous grant situation." Given the popularity of Alan's plays and the fact Haunting Julia was a three-hander with one fixed set (and even with its special effects, a comparatively cheap play to produce), Haunting Julia was rushed into the schedule in a bid to ease the financial difficulties. This created a unique situation where two unscheduled new Ayckbourn plays were running in repertory with each other. Communicating Doors opened on 27 January with Haunting Julia following on 13 April; although an Ayckbourn play had been scheduled for the January slot, it was advertised as Private Fears In Public Places (entirely unrelated to the 2004 play of the same name) but was replaced late in the day by Communicating Doors.

16 January: In 1999, the Yorkshire Building Society Brass Band performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for the first time, beginning a long and successful association with the venue. Since 1999 and as of writing, there has only been one year (2002) when the band - now known as the Hammonds Saltaire Band - has not performed at the venue, generally to packed houses.

17 January: Scarborough's first taste of an Alan Ayckbourn musical was unveiled in 1980 with Suburban Strains. Although the playwright had notoriously written the musical flop Jeeves with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1975, this had never been seen in Scarborough. Suburban Strains saw Alan - alongside composer Paul Todd - dipping his toes into musical waters again with great success following the live and loves of a school-teacher, Caroline. The production was notable for seeing the installation of a double-revolve in the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round for the first time. The stage revolving clockwise or counter-clockwise to indicate the plot going forwards or backwards in time; which apparently led to several instances of chaos in the rehearsal room where actors and props were scattered wildly by the revolve spinning the wrong way! Suburban Strains’ first performance was on 17 January 1980 with its 'opening' night on 18 January. Alan Ayckbourn has subsequently premiered 6 more musicals and 11 musical revues in Scarborough.

18 January: An impressive sight and a major milestone in the conversion of Scarborough's former Odeon cinema into the Stephen Joseph Theatre took place on 18 January 1994. A 30 metre high crane arrived to aid construction of the building. It was reported the crane was being mainly used to erect 80 tons of structural steelwork being lifted through the roof of the former cinema. The Scarborough Evening News also reported the original intention to open the theatre in two stages with the first stage opening in July 1994 (when Haunting Julia - see ’15 January’ above - would have presumably opened). It was later decided this was not practical but also a better idea to open a complete and fully functioning venue with the building actually opening in Spring 1996.

19 January: A plethora of fund-raising ventures took place during there early 1990s to raise money for the conversion of Scarborough's Odeon cinema into the Stephen Joseph Theatre. One of the more unusual was an evening at Scarborough's Millennium attraction on 19 January 1994. The sea-front attraction - now closed - looked at the history of the town and when it opened Alan Ayckbourn had contributed to some of the scripts used in the attraction. Returning the favour, the attraction offered a fund-raising evening with tickets for £5 and the chance to meet Alan Ayckbourn, Millennium's owner Henry Marshall and Charles McCarthy, Chief Executive of McCain Foods who was also one of the key figures in the new Stephen Joseph Theatre project. Approximately 250 people were reported to have attended the event which raised £1,460 for the Scarborough Theatre Development Trust

20 January: With 60 years behind it, it's always interesting to look at what - and whom - the Stephen Joseph Theatre has presented over the decades. On 20 January 1982, the theatre premiered its production of Butley, the only play by the renowned British playwright Simon Gray to have been produced at the theatre. Directed by Robin Herford, it starred Malcolm Hebden - best known today as Norris in Coronation Street - in the title role returning to the theatre for the season following a three-year absence. Other notable plays by Gray include Quartermaine's Terms and Otherwise Engaged.

21 January: The only play to have been recorded in its entirety at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for television was broadcast on BBC2 on 21 January 1984. The play was Alan Ayckbourn's A Cut In The Rates, a short one-act play written specifically to be filmed as part of the BBC's educational English Files series for a programme looking at the process of bringing a play to stage from read-through to final production. A Cut In The Rates had one public performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 12 November 1983 when it was recorded in front of a live audience, providing the climax of the programme, with the BBC recording other footage of the production process during the preceding week. To save on costs, the play was written to take advantage of the set and props used for the play currently in production, Michael Cashman's Before Your Very Eyes. You can find out more about A Cut In The Rates at Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website here.

22 January: The largest and one of the most ambitious Stephen Joseph Theatre tours launched at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 22 January 2014. The Ayckbourn Ensemble featured a company of 13 actors (including under-studies) touring the playwright's latest play Arrivals & Departures, a revival of Time Of My Life and the premiere production of his two one act plays Farcicals. The tour culminated in a critically acclaimed month-long season at there 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

24 January: The theatre made prime-time viewing on 24 January 1982 when Alan Ayckbourn was featured in the newly relaunched BBC culture show Omnibus, presented by Barry Norman. The programme interviewed the playwright at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round to mark the launch of his epic play Intimate Exchanges and the Scarborough company's forthcoming transfer of Alan Ayckbourn's musical Making Tracks to Greenwich Theatre. The programme, broadcast at 9.40pm on BBC1, was advertised with Alan Ayckbourn's quote: "What we're really about is fun, we're about entertainment; we're not earnest, hairy intellectuals."

27 January: On this day in 1994, Alan Ayckbourn's latest play Private Fears In Public Places was scheduled to open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. A good 10 years before a play by the same title actually premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The winter 1994 brochure for the venue advertised Alan Ayckbourn's latest play as Private Fears In Public Places with the description: "At the airport, Jessica waves a fond farewell to her husband. Then a chance encounter changes her life. How well does she know the man she married? How much can she trust him? How well does she know, how well can she trust herself?" We never did - or ever will - find out about Jessica and her chance encounter as Alan hit a writer's block and announced he wouldn't be writing this play. His back-up plan - essentially a non-musical version of A Word From Our Sponsor (1996) - also fell apart and it looked as though a revival would have to be scheduled instead. And then he came up with the idea for Communicating Doors, which was scheduled in place of Private Fears In Public Places and proved to be a huge success. In case you're wondering, the 2004 play Private Fears In Public Places has nothing to do with the planned 1994 play, except for sharing the same title.

28 January: On 28 January 1976, the final Alan Ayckbourn play to receive its world premiere at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, opened. Just Between Ourselves is regarded both as one of Alan's darkest plays and as one of the pivotal plays in his development as a writer. It is also fondly remembered as the play with a Morris Minor on stage, which Alan has frequently stated was probably the final straw in the Library's relationship with the theatre when the Chief Librarian arrived at work to find a car on the first floor of the Public Library. The play was performed three-sided as the winter season that year was relegated to the Lecture Room at the Library as the traditional - and larger - Concert Room was unavailable. When Alan revived the play later in the year as the Library Theatre's final production, it transferred to the Concert Room, but Alan decided to keep it three-sided rather than re-direct it.

30 January: Scarborough Theatre Trust made a very significant decision on this day in 1976, when it was decided the company would move to the former Westwood County Modern School beneath Valley Bridge (colloquially known as Westwood). The Trust had been seriously searching for a permanent new home for the company since 1967 (click here for a look at the many venues considered over the years). However, in January 1975 the North Yorkshire County Council Libraries Committee announced the company would be allowed just one more year (it actually became 18 months) at the venue and the search for a new home began in earnest. Despite hopes for a move to a purpose-built venue, it was decided on 30 January 1976, the company would make a temporary move to Westwood (at the time, Scarborough Council has pledged its backing to an unrealised plan to build a new theatre at the site of the former Vernon Road car park). The minutes of the Trust meeting recorded: "It was proposed Councillor Plows and seconded by George Jackson: 'that if Westwood School becomes available we should move there.' This was carried unanimously." Theatre In The Round At Westwood (renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round two years later) opened in October 1976. It was the 'temporary' home of the company for the next 20 years.

31 January: The opening show and opening date of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was revealed by the Scarborough Evening News on 31 January 1996 with a front page report announcing Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves would open the theatre on 24 April 1996. This was actually the worst kept secret at the time as various media had been reporting that a new version of the flop 1975 musical Jeeves was likely to open the venue since autumn of the previous year. However, no official announcement had yet been made. The Scarborough Evening News actually broke the official embargo on the announcement when the publication became aware a rival regional newspaper was intending to break the embargo and so the publication reported: "Jeeves, the musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn, will be the first production at the new theatre."* It was later revealed the production would actually be a revised musical called By Jeeves, which was virtually unrecognisable from its original production - and would prove to be far more successful.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. All views expressed on this page are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.