Stephen Joseph Theatre Significant Dates: February

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

2 February:
The BBC's first broadcast of a Stephen Joseph Theatre production took place on BBC1 North on this day in 1979. The company recorded a 30 minute version of Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd's revue Men On Women On Men, which had premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round the previous year. Alan Ayckbourn received his first television directing credit and the company featured Malcolm Hebden, Lavinia Bertram, Robin Murphy and Alison Skilbeck with the production being recorded at the BBC Studios in Leeds, rather than at the Scarborough theatre.

3 February: In 1996, the doors closed on the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round as the final performance took place at the venue on 3 February. The play was a revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Just Between Ourselves, directed by Robin Herford, and was the same play which had been the final production at the company's previous home, the Library Theatre. After the performance, Alan Ayckbourn gave a speech looking forward to the theatre's future at its soon-to-be-opened new home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Following this, there was a surprise appearance by the actor Malcolm Hebden playing the lead mute character from Alan Ayckbourn's Mr Whatnot - the play which had opened the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round (or the Theatre In The Round At Westwood as it was known between 1976 and 1978). His brief appearance culminated in him miming turning the lights off at the venue and the stage lights went down at the venue for a final time.

4 February: The first major documentary to feature the Library Theatre - an episode of Arena - was broadcast on BBC2 on 4 February 1976. Although, the theatre and company had appeared in other documentaries and features about Alan Ayckbourn, this was the first significant programme to concentrate on the playwright's relationship with the venue as it featured him bringing his latest play Just Between Ourselves to the stage.

5 February: The Stephen Joseph Theatre launched a new initiative in 2002 with First Foot, a showcase of new writing. At this point, the theatre was largely a victim of its own success with its reputation for championing and staging new writing and was unable to practically programme all the work which had been developed through the Literary Department. As a result, First Foot was launched in which three playwrights working on their first professional commissions were given the opportunity to see their work brought to stage with a professional company but with a restricted budget; essentially a showcase for some of the new writers working with the theatre. The season featured Man For Hire by Meredith Oakes, The Star Throwers by Paul Lucas and Something Blue by Gill Adams; the latter featuring Amanda Abbington making her first appearance at the venue who has gone onto success on the screen, perhaps most notably as John Watson's wife in the hit BBC series Sherlock (she is also the wife of the actor who portrays Watson, Martin Freeman, another actor who appeared several times at the Stephen Joseph Theatre very early in his professional acting career).

6 February: In 2008, Alan Ayckbourn revived his play Woman In Mind at the Stephen Joseph Theatre to considerable acclaim with Janie Dee playing the lead role of Susan. This became a rare instance of a Stephen Joseph Theatre production transferring to the West End complete with the majority of its original cast. The play opened on 6 February 2009 at the Vaudeville Theatre - where the play had its London premiere in 1983 - and marked, as of writing, Alan Ayckbourn's final production as a director in the West End. The production was critically acclaimed and highlighted the calibre of acting company Scarborough has always enjoyed.

8 February: On 8 February 2000, the first new Ayckbourn play of the millennium opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre with a rare foray into the end-stage with Virtual Reality. Presented in the McCarthy auditorium before going on a UK tour, the play drew attention from a minority of the audience complaining about the swearing in the play - largely from a lush literary agent, played with aplomb by Susie Blake, apparently loosely inspired by Alan's famed agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay. Although the language was actually relatively tame (certainly by today's standards), it led to a letter published in the Scarborough Evening News on 4 May in which the Alan Ayckbourn was berated for using 'that word' with the question, 'is it really necessary, Sir Alan?' It's not actually made clear which word caused such offense though and this author would like to think it was "Tooting."* But probably not....

* One for the Ayckbourn fans, the play contains the rather lovely line: "Back to Tooting. To Tooting. Nice word Tooting, isn't it?"

10 February: In the entry for 15 January (click here), it was noted how Alan Ayckbourn's play Haunting Julia was intended to be the first play to be performed in the new Stephen Joseph Theatre's McCarthy auditorium; however the fates and financial cuts saw it produced earlier than expected at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1994. Haunting Julia did eventually get a production in its original intended home of The McCarthy opening on 10 February 1999 (three years after the theatre opened). This also marked the first time the play was produced as the author originally intended as an end-stage play; although conceived for the end-stage, the original production was in-the-round. Whilst the play was finally produced as intended, it still wasn't quite as Alan Ayckbourn imagined. The play had originally been written as one act with no interval. Apparently during the original 1994 production, the accounts department had complained bar-takings were down as a result of the lack of an interval. For the 1999 production, the author put in an interval but it was a decision he regretted and he now emphasises the play should be produced as one act (which it was when revived again at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2008).

12 February: On 12 February 2014, the Stephen Joseph Theatre launched its summer season with a special press launch in London; the first time the venue had ever announced a season in the capital. Artistic Director Chris Monks, Alan Ayckbourn and the team behind the musical adaptation of The Boy Who Fell Into A Book (Cathy Shostak, Eric Angus & Paul James) were among the people who attended the event at the Old Vic which announced a season which included Alan Ayckbourn's ambitious 'chance' play Roundelay, the world premiere of The Boy Who Fell Into A Book musical, the first fruits of the theatre's re-launched Literary Department with ScreenPlay, a premiere of an adaptation of the popular thriller novel The Last Train To Scarborough and a new version of Arthur Sullivan's Cox & Box.

13 February: One of the most interesting documentaries to feature the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was Omnibus, transmitted on BBC1 on 13 February 1990. Although ostensibly broadcast to tie in with the London premiere of Man Of The Moment, it focused on Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough and his work at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Hosted by Michael Billington, it remains one of the most insightful documentaries into the playwright and his relationship with Scarborough.

15 February: Although the Stephen Joseph Theatre appointed new Executive & Artistic Director during the summer of 2016, it was not until the following year they were able to announce their first full summer season and their vision for the SJT moving on. This took place in a special launch event on 15 February in The McCarthy where the press and members of the theatre's Circle group were invited to hear details of the launch. A commitment to the company's founding principles of encouraging new playwriting and new playwrights was announced with The McCarthy auditorium becoming a home for new wriitng and The Round space dedicated to 'popular excellence'. The event was also attended by Alan Ayckbourn, playwright and actor Amelia Bullmore, playwright Ali Taylor and director Lotte Wakeham.

16 February: In 1985, a remarkable achievement came to a close when Alan Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges closed at the Ambassador's Theatre in London. Featuring the original Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round cast of Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram, it marked the end of a journey which had begun in Scarborough on 3 June 1982. During those 32 months, the two actors were involved in a an epic production which saw the two of them play 10 roles in a play with 16 possible variations and more than 30 hours of dialogue. The production opened at Scarborough, where it ran in repertory for 15 months before transferring to the Greenwich Theatre in London, before transferring to the West End at the Ambassadors.

17 February: This marks one of the most important days in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. On 17 February 1955, Stephen Joseph sent his first letter to the Chief Librarian of Scarborough Library regarding the possibility of opening a theatre-in-the-round in the seaside town. Having been made aware of the venue in 1954, this marked his first communication with Mr William Smettem, who would respond favourably to Stephen's suggestion for an arena theatre and the idea that: "A festival of new plays might be a good holiday attraction besides a real service to the theatre." The original letter is held in the Stephen Joseph Theatre Collection at Scarborough Library and a reproduction of it can be found on the website here.

18 February: There have been regular threats to the existence of the company over the decades and one of the most significant came in 2011 when The Stage newspaper reported North Yorkshire County Council had slashed its Arts budget reducing its annual funding to the Stephen Joseph Theatre from £63,000 to £10,000. This had the immediate effect of ending the company's rural touring programme. Fears that this cut would be compounded by a significant cut in funding from the Arts Council of England soon afterwards were alleviated when the theatre was told it would continue to receive funding for three years from ACE; in context 638 arts organisations around the UK did lose ACE funding at the time.

21 February: On 21 February 2006, the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, suffered a stroke. The news was not made public until a week following the event, by which point it was clear Sir Alan was well on the road to recovery. The immediate effect was the Stephen Joseph Theatre had to quickly find a replacement director for Alan Ayckbourn's ambitious revival of Intimate Exchanges which would take place over the following 12 months; Tim Luscombe was appointed to direct the play. Sir Alan returned to work six months later to direct the world premiere of his play If I Were You, which he had completed just prior to his stroke.

23 February: Another significant day in the creation of theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough took place on 23 February 1955. Following Stephen Joseph's first letter to the Director of Scarborough Library, William Smettem (see 17 February) with his initial idea about staging a professional theatre-in-the-round season in the Library, Stephen followed up with a second letter in which he included a sketch of his proposed layout for theatre-in-the-round at the Concert Room in the library. The sketch is actually a good representation of what would be built later that year and how the Concert Room would be set up for most of the company's 20 years at the venue. The original typed letter and the hand-written sketch and notes are now held in the Stephen Joseph Theatre Collection at Scarborough Library and a copy of the full sketch can be seen on the website here.

24 February: In 2005, the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary. One of the events launched during the anniversary year was the Micro Musicals seasons, which presented three new musicals sharing an ensemble company; like the new writing-orientated First Foot seasons in 2002 / 2003, the Micro Musicals were presented on a limited budget in The McCarthy Theatre. The world premiere of Jane Buckler & Richard Taylor's The Jonah Boy took place on 24 February with the other musicals being Toby Davies & Grant Oldings' Spittin' Distance and Laurie Sansom & Loz Kaye's A Beginner's Guide To Cybershopping. The season ended on 12 March when all three musicals were presented on the same day. Sadly, Micro Musicals has never been repeated at the venue since.

25 February: In 1982, The Stage newspaper reported that the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's press officer Stephen Wood, who had joined the company in 1976, was to leave to become a publicist at the National Theatre - he would later become Head of Press and work with Alan Ayckbourn a number of times on his National Theatre productions. Stephen returned to Scarborough from 1996 to 2015 to become the General Administrator of the new Stephen Joseph Theatre - later the Executive Director.

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.