New Writing: 60 Plays For 60 YearsAs part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations, the Scarborough In The Round blog ran a series of articles looking at the history of new writing at the theatre decade-by-decade.
Click on the decade links above to read the articles specific to each decade.
This article is a personal choice by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, of 60 significant plays drawn from the 60 years between 1955 and 2015.
New Writing: 60 Plays For 60 Years1) Circle Of Love by Eleanor D Glaser (1955)
The production which opened the Library Theatre on 14 July 1955 was Circle Of Love by Eleanor D Glaser. Although well-received, the play itself was not ground-breaking in itself. What it represents was though. Not only was it the first play to be performed at the Library Theatre, it was also a new play in a season entirely consisting of new plays (something practically unknown in the UK at that time) with three of the playwrights being women; again an extraordinary achievement for the period. Circle Of Love is significant as it launched the Library Theatre and 60 years of new playwriting.
2) Wuthering Heights by Jurneman (Joan) Winch (1956)
The first adaptation of an existing work produced at the Library Theatre was this stripped down version of Emily Brontë's novel. It was written by one of the four writers who had premiered plays during the inaugural season, Joan Winch, but who - indicative of the attitude towards female writers at the time - produced her plays under the 'male' pseudonym of Jurneman Winch. The well-received production - by both audiences and critics - centred on Heathcliff and Catherine's relationship and was one of two early plays revived by Stephen Joseph during the 1960 season due to its popularity; thus Wuthering Heights (and Ruth Dixon's 'Prentice Pillar) were the company's first revivals of its own work.
3) The Lunatic View by David Campton (1957)
David Campton was the Library Theatre's first resident playwright and between 1955 and 1965 had at least one new play a year premiered at the venue, frequently directed by Stephen Joseph. The Lunatic View marked David's most significant early play and what he considered his first original work. Whilst not strictly a Library Theatre premiere - Stephen Joseph decided to premiere it in London as part of his Studio Theatre Club before he opened it in Scarborough - it is an important play for the company. Consisting of four plays, it drew attention from critics such as John Russell Taylor and was an early proponent of the 'Comedy of Menace', which Campton and Harold Pinter were initially associated with. The final play, Then... (also known as Now & Then) features two actors with paper bags over their head and Alan Ayckbourn recalls performing it in 1960 and tasting paper bag for days afterwards!
4) Alas, Poor Fred by James Saunders (1959)
One of the earliest successes of the Library Theatre, Alas, Poor Fred has gone on to become a popular play which is still performed - particularly by amateur companies - to this day. Influenced by Ionesco, Saunders essentially wrote a play in a 'Theatre Of The Absurd' genre with its casual conversation between the elderly couple Ernest and Ethel in which they discuss the cutting in half of Ethel's husband Fred (later revealed to be by Ernest) as casually as what is for dinner. The play was self-published by Studio Theatre Ltd (the company which ran the Library Theatre) and illustrates Stephen's eclectic decisions for plays for the Library Theatre and championing what would now be regarded as risky plays.
5) The Square Cat by Alan Ayckbourn (1959)
In 1959, a playwriting force was launched into the world with the world premiere of 18 year old Alan Ayckbourn's first play, The Square Cat. An actor with the Scarborough company, Alan famously complained to Stephen Joseph about the quality of his roles; Stephen's response that if Alan thought he could write better plays, go write one and give himself a good role. The play was a farce - and contrary to what is often said, that is very rare for Alan Ayckbourn who believes only three of his many plays can be classed as farces - and was a huge success for the company, being the first play to be performed for two weeks in succession (at the cost of David Campton's Frankenstein which had a week cancelled). The Square Cat was directed by Stephen and could be seen as cementing the relationship between mentor and protege. It is hard to believe if Stephen had not offered Alan the opportunities to write and nurtured his talent, that Alan would have had his most extraordinary playwriting career. As for the good role Stephen told him to wrote, Alan cast himself in the lead as a dual personality character who in his rock star personna required the actor to sing, play the guitar and dance... none of which the playwright / actor could actually do very well!
6) Standing Room Only by Alan Ayckbourn (1961)
Alan Ayckbourn followed up his first play, The Square Cat, six months later with another hit Love After All. However, his third play, Dad’s Tale (1960) was a disaster, commercially and artistically. But Stephen Joseph offered him a commission for summer 1961 and Alan produced another hit with Standing Room Only. His first future-set play, it is set on a double-decker bus on Shaftesbury Avenue in a dystopian future - 2010! - where gridlock has frozen the nation’s roads for years and the Government is covertly sterilising much of the population; although despite this grim premise it’s essentially a comedy about a family coping with unusual circumstances. This was the last play Alan wrote under the pseudonym Roland Allen and when it was revived in 1962 in Stoke-on-Trent, it was credited to Alan Ayckbourn. It was also optioned for the West End - although never produced - and bought for ITV’s Armchair Theatre - again never produced. It was also a phenomenal success at the Library Theatre which cancelled other performances at the end of the summer season to fit in extra performances of Standing Room Only.
7) The Bed Life Of A Mad Boy by Stockwell Allen (1961)
Stephen Joseph was never risk-adverse and was passionate about promoting new writing and new writers. This led to occasionally very experimental and unusual pieces such as Stockwell Allen’s The Bed Life Of A Mad Boy, which was performed for just one night and as a ‘club’ performance; this circumnavigated the need to get a public performance license from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which this play would almost certainly never have received due to its content. The play lacked a straight-forward narrative and its disconnected scenes and structure were meant to reflect the mind of the central disturbed character - played by Alan Ayckbourn - who rapes a nun during the course of the play. Although not typical Library Theatre fare, it demonstrated Stephen’s desire to push the boundaries. As was common at the time, the production was followed by an informal question and answer session between Stephen, the company and the audience; Stephen always willing to have a dialogue about theatre.
8) David Copperfield by Joan Macalpine (1961)
David Copperfield illustrates Stephen Joseph’s desire that everyone in the theatre should try their hand at everyone’s else job and also be aware of what everyone else does. The play was written by Joan Macalpine, who was the theatre’s stage manager; legend has it that Stephen employed her largely as she was the only person capable of driving the theatre’s notoriously unstable van on tour. However, she also proved to be something of a writer and David Copperfield was one of several plays staged at the Library Theatre by Joan. It typified Stephen’s drive to encourage people to write which resulted in actors (such as Alan Ayckbourn) and backstage crew (such as Joan) trying their hand - and being encouraged where successful - at playwriting. This was continued and encouraged by Alan Ayckbourn when he became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972.
9) Usher by David Campton (1962)
Between 1955 and 1965, David Campton had at least one play a year staged at the Library Theatre; frequently directed by Stephen Joseph. He was the company’s first resident dramatist and during those 11 years was extremely prolific. Usher was the second of three gothic adaptations by David which received their premieres at the Library Theatre. The first, Frankenstein (1959), had not been a success with Stephen Joseph playing the creature (it would find more success in a revised form later). David had more success with his other adaptations though, Usher (1962) and Carmilla (1972), the latter based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire story. Usher, adapted from The Fall Of The House Of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe, featured Alan Ayckbourn as Usher and was very well-received, ably demonstrating the power of in-the-round to present what seems the most unlikely of content.
10) Death At The New Year by R.G. Gregory (1962)
Although criminally under-appreciated for his contribution to British theatre today, Stephen Joseph was nonetheless still influential. R.G. Gregory, who wrote Death At The New Year, was enormously influenced by Stephen and went onto a life-long dedication to theatre-in-the-round which he still advocates today. Stephen tended to have a big impact on those he met and worked with. The play was also notable for several other things. It marked the final performance in Scarborough by Studio Theatre Ltd, which had founded the Library Theatre in 1955; the company moved to Stoke-on-Trent after Stephen founded the country’s first permanent round theatre, the Victoria Theatre, there in October 1962. It was also directed by Peter Cheeseman, who would go on to become the Artistic Director and driving force behind the Victoria Theatre for several decades. Alan Ayckbourn and his first wife Christine Roland acted together for the final time in this play and it was also a very early appearance by Elizabeth Bell, the company’s first actress who was born in Scarborough; Elizabeth would go on to a very successful acting career that including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.
11) Meet My Father by Alan Ayckbourn (1965)
This is the big one. The first new play produced by the Library Theatre to receive a West End transfer and the launchpad for Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinary career as a playwright. Except you would never have known that in 1965. The play was called Meet My Father - it would find fame two years later in the West End as Relatively Speaking - and directed by Stephen Joseph, it was about a third shorter than we know it today. Stephen having characteristically received the script and then extensively edited out swathes of the play! The fact the play exists though was again indicative of how Stephen supported and nurtured his writers. Alan’s previous play - Mr Whatnot - had premiered at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, before being optioned for the West End by the producer Peter Bridge. This was Alan’s first West End production and it was a disaster with the reviews amongst the worse in his career. The after-effect saw Alan leave theatre and join the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer for five years, but at the same time Stephen contacted him and commissioned him to write a play for Scarborough for the summer of 1965, asking for a ‘well-made play’ and telling Alan it was best to know the rules before you broke them. The result was a play that has proved to be popular for the past five decades and an appropriate cap to Stephen’s work with Alan; Meet My Father was the final play of Alan’s to be directed by Stephen, who died several months after the play’s successful opening in the West End.
12) The Play Of Mata Hari by Mike Stott (1965)
It seems rather ironic now that Stephen Joseph closed the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1965, at the point where it was at its most successful - certainly financially and arguably artistically. The busiest season ever staged by the company saw world premieres of plays by Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Plater, David Campton and Mike Stott. The latter’s The Play Of Mata Hari is believed to be his first professionally produced work and told the story of the famous war spy. Mike would only write the one play for the Library Theatre, but soon afterwards would find himself working at the Royal Shakespeare Company - alongside Mike Leigh - before becoming an extremely successful and prolific writer for stage, screen and radio, whose play Funny Peculiar is regarded as a classic of ‘70s theatre comedy.
13) Hop, Step & Jump by Alan Plater (1967)
Having been closed by Stephen Joseph in 1965, the Library Theatre bounced back as a professional venue in 1967. The theatre manager and keen amateur theatrical Ken Boden re-launching the theatre with Stephen’s blessing (Stephen died in October of the same year) and a reduced programme for the company. However, despite having only four productions and a 13 week summer season, Ken - helped by the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, Alfred Bradley and Rodney Wood - kept the theatre true to Stephen’s founding principles with a theatre-in-the-round committed to new writing. The 1967 season had two new plays, The Sparrow by Alan Ayckbourn, and Hop, Step & Jump by Alan Plater - arguably they both rank amongst the most significant writers to emerge from the north of England during this period. This was Plater’s first full-length professionally produced stage play; his previous plays were one acts which had been adapted from radio plays developed by Alfred Bradley. Although not well known - certainly when compared to his later theatre and television work - the play contained much of what was told define Plater’s theatre work such as elements of the surreal, great physicality and - of course - music. The production was directed by Alfred Bradley and well received, although few would probably realise what a significant writer Plater would go on to become.
14) A Boat In The Backyard by David Bramley (1968)
Very little is known about A Boat In The Backyard as it comes from a period of the theatre’s history when much of the archival material was apparently destroyed in an unfortunate incident involving a press officer and an office clear-out during the 1980s. The play was the only new play produced during the 1968 seasson, but it notably came from a writer local to Scarborough - surviving press material does not indiciate how local though! - and continues to show the theatre's commitment to new writing, particularly northern writers. This was probably due in large part to the involvement in the theatre of Alfred Bradley, who as a radio drama producer for the BBC - and for whom Alan Ayckbourn was working at the time - was famous for his championing and nurturing of northern writing talent. The lead role was also taken by Tom Baker, who was with the company for the 1968 summer season. Then little known, he would gain what might be described as a measure of fame when he was cast as the perennially popular fourth Doctor in the BBC series Doctor Who in 1974.
15) A Little Stiff Built Chap by Leonard Barras (1969)
Leonard Barras is a playwright who never achieved great recognition - The Guardian noted he was a “disgracefully neglected comic writer.” His first two full-length plays to be produced were at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, both directed by Alan Ayckbourn with A Little Stiff Built Chap in 1969 and The Shy Gasman in 1970 and having written for BBC Radio, this was how he likely came to Alan’s attention. The plays were not conventional fare, Barras was renowned for both the absurd and surreal within his writing, but they demonstrate the breadth of work the Library Theatre was prepared to produce. The relative financial security of an Ayckbourn play was even at this point being used to allow risks to be taken within the rest of the season. The play itself generated several ‘disgusted’ letters to the Scarborough Evening News for daring to have a lady in underwear on stage - Alan notes heaven knows what would have happened if he’d followed the original play script and had her naked! That Leonard’s talents were overlooked is perhaps illustrated by the fact that Alan Ayckbourn suggested an extract from The Shy Gasman was one of the three extracts representing the Library Theatre years performed on 14 July 2015 at Scarborough Library to mark the 60th anniversary of the theatre’s opening.
16) Tom, Dick & Harry by Peter Blythe (1972)
In 1972, Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre (he had been Director of Productions in 1969 and 1970) and began as he meant to go on. Still confined to just a summer season, the Library Theatre presented five plays of which four were new including the world premiere of Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn. Tom, Dick & Harry was the first play by Peter Blythe to be staged by the company and showed the spirit of Stephen Joseph still lived on within the company. Peter was best known as an actor - both before and after Tom, Dick & Harry - and worked with the Royal Shakespeatre Company the National Theatre and in the West End. But, as with many people before him, the Library Theatre offered Peter the chance to turn his hand to playwriting.
17) The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn (1973)
Arguably one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous creations, it seems unlikely this would ever have been written had Alan not been commissioning himself at his own theatre and been prepared to take risks. For no matter how much we may take this trilogy for granted, it can’t be seen as anything but a risk - as Eric Thompson, the director of the West End premiere, noted if one failed, they all failed. But The Norman Conquests illustrated the artistic leeway the Library Theatre offered, it offered the opportunity to do something that was unlikely to be commissioned elsewhere (particularly as Alan was told by numerous London managements that trilogies were box office death at the time) and it was a huge success for the Scarborough company. Intriguingly, it wasn’t originally known as The Norman Conquests nor promoted as a trilogy but rather three related plays; Alan still aware his main audience at the time were tourists who might be wary about thinking they had to spend three nights of the week’s holiday in the theatre. Given the play’s success around the world, it’s amazing to think it was first staged on a minimal budget in a temporary theatre space in a room above Scarborough Library. Even then, Alan was pushing what he could achieve in the theatre, no matter the limitations.
18) Away From It All by Peter King (1974)
Peter King was an actor with the Library Theatre company during the 1960s and also played the lead role in Alan Ayckbourn’s first West End transfer, the notorious flop Mr Whatnot. He was also a rather talented playwright who had several productions staged in Scarborough over the years. Away From It All was the second (following All Together Now the previous year) and The Stage's review noted it was “well worth a London presentation”. The comedy about a married couple moving from the city to the country was also a big hit with audiences with full houses throughout the run of the play. Alongside Stephen Mallatratt, he was one of the late playwriting ‘finds’ at the Library Theatre before the company’s move to a new home in 1976.
19) The Christmas That Nearly Wasn’t by Janet Dale (1974)
The Christmas That Nearly Wasn’t is an interesting development for the company as it essentially marks the first continued commitment to producing new work for young people. Although the Library Theatre had premiered Jennifer Smith’s Tranio’s Box during the summer of 1972 and the theatre had occasionally dabbled in plays for children (including Alan Ayckbourn’s disastrous Dad’s Tale in 1960), The Christmas That Nearly Wasn’t represented the first real commitment to this audience and began a seven year unbroken run of a family play at Christmas. Janet, who would write a number of these Christmas plays, was also the director and the production featured the ensemble company; when Alan Ayckbourn began writing family plays during the late 1980s, he was adamant that they should have the same quality production values as any other play and feature the repertory company at the theatre. Essentially Janet Dale - and Jennifer Smith - introduced plays for younger audiences to the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
20) An Englishman’s Home by Stephen Mallatratt (1975)
An Englishman’s Home marked the playwriting debut of the actor Stephen Mallatratt and was described by Alan Ayckbourn as a “practically perfect first play.” Stephen is one of the Library Theatre’s most significant playwriting discoveries and would go on to write a number of successful plays for the theatre, not last his adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black (of which there will be more in two weeks time). An Englishman’s Home also illustrates the audience which had been nurtured at the theatre during the previous two decades; a new play by someone known only as an actor, yet ‘full house’ signs were reported throughout the entirety of the run including the earliest performances before the good reviews and positive word of mouth spread. This was an audience that was comfortable with experiencing new work and embraced it just as quickly - if not more so - than established plays. An Englishman’s Home followed its Scarborough run by playing in repertoire on tour with the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves, an extraordinary vote of confidence for Stephen Mallatratt and his first play.
21) Westwood Coronation Day Street Party by Bob Eaton (1977)
When the company moved from the Library Theatre to the Theatre In The Round At Westwood (later renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round) in 1976, one of the major developments was the creation of a second studio space for the company. This end-stage would become synonymous with lunchtime and late night productions at the theatre and would become an important part of the theatre’s commitment to new work. Between 1977 and 1994, the Studio was frequently used to showcase new writing - predominantly one act plays - by writers being nurtured by the theatre; in a number of cases, these provided a springboard to production in the main house. The very first of the lunchtime plays was Westwood Coronation Day Street Party, which was written by Bob Eaton to tie in with the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The production also marked the first of many revues which would be produced during the lunchtime slots, with this one offering songs and sketches set in 1953 during the Queen’s coronation in which people imagined what life would be like 25 years hence. The show was extremely popular and set the stage for some memorable productions in the Studio over the coming two decades.
22) Shooting, Fishing & Riding by Stephen Lowe (1977)
Another SJT playwright who went onto great success was Stephen Lowe. Stephen had joined the company as an actor in 1975 and premiered his first play for the SJT - Stars - as part of the double bill Comic Pictures. In 1997, the world premiere of Shooting, Fishing & Riding marked the first late-night production in the Studio and followed Stephen's nomination as Most Promising Young Playwright Of The Year. The only surviving review in archive is preposterously negative - the unmanned critic calling it “pretentious jumble” - but Stephen had the last laugh going onto write and work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and many of the country’s most prominent regional theatres as well as for television.
23) Men On Women On Men by Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd (1978)
The Studio was also home to substantive body of work by Alan Ayckbourn and the composer Paul Todd. Over a period of nine years, the pair produced 10 revues predominantly for the lunchtime slot in the Studio. The first of these was Men On Women On Men, which was also filmed in 1979 by BBC North. It also highlights the input of the theatre’s musical director Paul Todd at the venue, during his tenure, he was responsible for programming lunchtime and evening concerts which proved to be very popular for the theatre over the years.
24) Patriotic Bunting (1978) / Tishoo by Brian Thompson (1979)
Brian Thompson was another playwright nurtured by the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, who had early success at the venue. His first play at the venue, Patriotic Bunting, was the first play commissioned by the theatre which was essentially set in Scarborough (identified as an out of season, seaside town in the north-east) and drew favourable comparisons with Alan Ayckbourn. The play - featuring most of the original company - was later recorded for BBC Radio by Alfred Bradley. The following year, Thompson wrote Tishoo which was set in a Northern university laboratory researching the common cold. Well-received, this is one of a select number of non-Ayckbourn plays premiered by the company which transferred to the West End (other examples include Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman In Black and Tim Firth's Neville’s Island). Indeed it has the distinction of having the fastest West End transfer of any play from the Stephen Joseph Theatre opening at the Wyndham’s Theatre just three months after it opened in Scarborough.
25) Taking Steps by Alan Ayckbourn (1979)
The decade has to end with Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps, regarded as one of the great success of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. It was the first production staged by the company to run for more than 100 performances and was a phenomenal success. Premiered in September 1979, it returned in June 1980 where it ran simultaenously with the disappointing West End production (having witnessed what Alan felt was a mis-judged London production, the playwright kept faith with the piece as he knew the concurrent reaction in Scarborough was the exact opposite and was a huge hit with audiences). Alan Ayckbourn regards it as his only true farce (and it is dedicated to the master farceur Ben Travers) and it is also one of the few Ayckbourn plays specifically intended for in-the-round production; whilst it can and has been produced end-stage, it loses much of its humour and point in anything but in-the-round staging. It also marked a point where it could be said - and was noted by many critics at the time - if you wanted to see a definitive production of an Ayckbourn play, you needed to travel up to Scarborough to see it directed by Ayckbourn with his ensemble company in the round, rather than wait for it to come to the West End.
26) Absolutely Free by Stephen Lavell (1980)
Encouraging young writing talent has long been championed by the Stephen Joseph Theatre - you only have to look at Alan Ayckbourn receiving his first professional commission at the age of 20 to see that. The National Student Drama Festival and its affiliated International Students Playscript Competition has directly led to two playwrights coming to the theatre. Stephen Lavell and, later, Robert Shearman. Stephen won the competition and came to the attention of Alan Ayckbourn through this, who commissioned him to write the fill-length play Absolutely Free, which explored the world of advertising. The play was not a critical success, but as Alan Ayckbourn has noted, new writing is a risk and not every play works - but you have to offer writers the chance to be produced and learn, otherwise where will the next generation of writers come from?
27) Trailer by Paul Copley (1980)
Trailer is a good example of how the Studio space at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was used to showcase and provide a test-bed for new talent. Paul Copley is an award-winning actor from Yorkshire who has worked with the RSC, National Theatre, Royal Court Theatre and prolifically in regional theatre, who also writes. Trailer was one of Paul's earlier plays and he would go on to wrote two full-length plays for the Scarborough company, Tapster (1981) and Calling (1986). Trailer was a late night show directed by Robin Herford and one of the few plays produced at the theatre in the past 60 years which is set in the locale - in this case a trailer park in Filey, just down the road from Scarborough.
28) You Should See Us Now by Peter Tinniswood (1981)
Peter Tinniswood had a number of significant successes at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round during the 1980s and 1990s, starting with You Should See Us Now. Directed by Alan Ayckbourn, the play sees a party being arranged for the children of the adults at a house - with the actors playing both the children and the adults and the disconnected view of what childhood is like from the perspectives of those who have experienced and those who are experiencing it. Peter, another northern playwright, had already had success on television with the show I Didn't Know You Cared and had written a number of plays prior to You Should See Us Now. He would go on great success across television, stage and radio - the latter for which he would notably create the popular Uncle Mort plays - and one of his most popular radio plays, The Village Fete, he would later adapt for and premiere in Scarborough. You Should See Us Now was also unusual in that its popularity led to a sequel at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round with At The End Of The Day in 1983.
29) Way Upstream by Alan Ayckbourn (1981)
It's very hard to pick just one or two plays by Alan Ayckbourn from the 1980s as it was a decade in which he was on an ascendant with popular and critically acclaimed work which would open in Scarborough before a guarenteed production at the National Theatre or in the West End. However, it's hard not to single out Way Upstream for its significance in demonstrating just what the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was capable of. Despite its limitations as a venue, Alan produced something which many theatres would not even contemplate (and as the National Theatre's later production demonstrated, not even be able to cope with the same challenges). Set on a cruise boat on a canal, the play features a flooded stage on which sits a boat that moves and on which the action is predominately set. There is also a rain-storm and a waist-deep fight in the same river. The play got slightly lost amongst its technical achievements (and the notorious NT production), but has since been re-evaluated and re-appraised. It demonstrated Alan Ayckbourn pushing the theatre to the limits and also a possibly unhealthy obsession with water which materialised again in 1988 with a swimming pool in Man Of The Moment!
30) Before Your Very Eyes by Michael Cashman (1983)
Michael Cashman joined the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round as an actor in 1982 and stayed with the company until 1984. He would later find fame as the first major gay character in a British soap opera in EastEnders on BBC1 before enjoying a distinguished career in politics. He was also a writer and in 1983 made his playwrighting debut at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round with Before Your Very Eyes, a comedy-thriller set in an old people's home. Michael would go on to write Bricks 'n' Mortar for the theatre the following year. A side-note was the set of Before Your Very Eyes was also by Alan Ayckbourn for a short play he wrote for a BBC educational television programme illustrating the journey of a page from page to stage.
31) The Woman In Black by Stephen Mallatratt (1987)
Probably the break-out play of the 1980s from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and one of the most famous plays to come from the venue not written by Alan Ayckbourn. The Woman In Black has been a staple of the West End for more than a quarter of a century and has been performed around the world, yet it began as a 'Christmas stocking filler' commissioned on a minimal budget and with huge limitations. Stephen Mallatratt, a fan of the book, promptly created a stunningly effective piece of pure theatre which has frightened and been loved by many over the years. Forced to work within challenging limitations, it is a perfect example of the kind of work Stephen Joseph would have championed, showcasing the versatility and wide appeal of theatre.
32) Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays by Alan Ayckbourn (1988)
Prior to 1988, Alan Ayckbourn was convinced he was not able to write for young people - largely thanks to two fairly disastrous plays during the early '60s. In 1988, he found not only was he a very capable writer for families, but also enjoyed it - and, most importantly, so did the young people. Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays was the first of what have become known as Alan Ayckbourn's 'family plays' and is an ingenious adventure in which young Suzie and her dog go in search of Neville's bark, stolen by the evil Mr Accousitcus; during the second act, Suzie's path through the daunting house is guided entirely by the audience. Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays led to a string of family plays, most of which are not that far removed from his adult plays and the playwright notes, generally the only difference is they move a bit faster, tend not to have any romantic subplots and end on a positive. They also had a huge influence on his other work leading him to introduce far more fantastical elements in his playwriting canon.
33) The Parasol by Frank Dunai (1988)
The Parasol is an interesting example of a play which perhaps might not be associated with the Stephen Joseph Theatre; the author Frank Dunai painstakingly over three years adapted one of Chekhov's lesser known short stories into a play - which was generally very well-received. Chekhov has not featured highly at the SJT over the years - although Alan Ayckbourn would adapt Uncle Vanya into a 1930s, Lake District set play Dear Uncle in 2011 - but Alan Ayckbourn, who directed the play, was very enthusiastic by the adaptation and believed Scarborough audiences would be willing to take a chance on it. It also illustrates something Alan Ayckbourn has repeatedly noted over the years, during 1988 the venue produced 12 productions and by doing that, it is easier to take a risk on a play such as The Parasol. If one fails, there are - hopefully - 11 other plays to support it compared to, say a year with just six plays where if one play fails, it can have a dramatic effect on fortunes.
34) The Ballroom by Peter King (1988)
The 1988 summer season also saw a popular new play in the season with The Ballroom by Peter King, a playwright who had also acted for the company during the 1960s. The Ballroom memorably saw the entire company having to learnt to ballroom dance as well as featuring a disturbing band on stage, consisting entirely of moving maquettes aside from the musical director John Pattison, who - made up like the rest of the band - would be sat motionless in place with the band when the audience entered the auditoirum. The play proved to be one of the highlights of the 1988 season.
35) Three Men In A Boat by Blake Heathcote (1990)
The limitations and restrictions of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (in its various guises) have frequently also served to extraordinary creativeness and inventiveness, which have turned an apparent disadvantage into an advantage. The Studio at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was always a space of limitations - be it the physical space to the available technology - and yet plays such as The Woman In Black (1987) demonstrated just what could be achieved with a little (or perhaps quite a lot!) inventiveness. In 1990, Blake Heathcote adapted Jerome K Jerome's classic 19th century book about three men - and a dog - an their misadventures on a river journey into an entertaining 60 minute play. Directed by Alan Ayckbourn, Three Men In A Boat utilised simple cardboard cut-out props to tell the humorous tale and showed that theatre, by its very nature, is more than able to meet the challenges thrown at it with a little ingenuity.
36) The Village Fete by Peter Tinniswood (1991)
Peter Tinniswood had a number of successes at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round during the 1980s, but returned in 1991 with a play which has gone onto achieve considerable popularity with both professionals and amateurs alike. The Village Fete was adapted from the radio play of the same name for the stage and featured the adventures of Tinniswood's popular poacher character, Winston. Directed by Alan Ayckbourn, it was the last play by Tinniswood to be produced at the theatre but his contribution to the Stephen Joseph Theatre is an important one.
37) Neville’s Island by Tim Firth (1992)
Neville's Island speaks for itself really! Tim Firth's first full-length play - commissioned after a successful lunchtime production, A Man Of Letters, the previous year - was a key factor in establishing Tim as a major writing talent. The play opened in Scarborough and was then produced in the West End and later adapted for television. Tim, meanwhile, has gone onto phenomenal success not least being the man behind the extraordinary success of Calendar Girls on film, stage and now as a musical. Tim was one of a number of playwrights from this prolific period at the theatre nurtured by Connal Orton, who would run the theatre's first literary department from 1996. Connal is an extremely important element in the success of the SJT during the '90s, nurturing and encouraging a raft of writers, many of whom have gone onto long-term success. He directed Tim's early plays at the SJT and played a huge part in encouraging the writer's considerable talents.
38) Take It To The Green Light, Barry by Vanessa Brooks (1994)
Another notable find in the 1990s was Vanessa Brooks who, like Tim Firth before her, was initially showcased in the Studio with a lunchtime show before being commissioned to write a full length play, Penny Blue. As Tim was directed by and encouraged by Connal Orton, Vanessa's early work was directed by the theatre's Associate Director Malcolm Hebden. Take It To The Green Light, Barry was a play which cleverly took advantage of th limited resources of the Studio in depicting a couple during a recording of a quiz show at a television studio; the play's fascinating journey from light to dark marking Vanessa as a talent to watch and who later became the Artistic Director of Dark Horse, based in Huddersfield, a company working with learning disabled actors.
39) Two Weeks With The Queen by Mary Morris (1994)
Two Weeks With The Queen marked the Stephen Joseph Theatre's first co-production with the National Theatre with an adaptation of Morris Gleitzman's novella. Although not a world premiere, it marked the European premiere of a play first produced in 1992 in Australia and whilst not strictly new writing, deserves a mention for illustrating the sort of risks the SJT took during this period. Ostensiably a family play, it dealt with issues such as cancer, AIDs and sibling loss. Not, as director Alan Ayckbourn once pointed out, the most commercial of subjects. Yet the play was a success and showed that Stephen Joseph's belief that risky new work could surprise and attract audiences still rang true forty years on.
40) White Lies by Robert Shearman (1994)
Robert Shearman came to the SJT as a young playwright who had had success in the International Student Playscript Competion, of which Alan Ayckbourn is patron, and was commissioned for a lunchtime slot in the Studio. His play, White Lies, was one of the studio's biggest successes that year with its tale of a couple and an imaginary friend who becomes a seed of marital discord. Rob would go on to write several full-length and one act plays for the venue (and White Lies was also later revived in 2007). Robert's writing career went on to encompass stage, radio, prose and screen - he won great acclaim for re-introducing the Daleks with the episode Dalek in the relaunched BBC television series Doctor Who in 2005 - and has won several major awards for his prose.
41) All Things Considered by Ben Brown (1996)
All Things Considered was the first major new playwriting success at the Stephen Joseph Theatre after the company moved into its new home in a £5.2m conversion of Scarborough's former Odeon cinema in 1996. This was Ben's first produced full-length play and one of the first pieces to emerge from the new Literary Department also launched with the new building and run by the newly appointed Literary Manager Connal Orton. The play, centring on a philosophy professor tired of life and looking to have control over the manner of his own exit - only to be constantly interrupted by the demands of friends and colleagues - was an extremely accomplished dark comedy highlighting an exciting new talent.
42) The Edge by Steve Carley (1997)
There have been playwrights at the SJT over the decades who have emerged from Scarborough itself, but none in quite the way Steve Carley did. He was studying on a Theatre Studies course at the town's University College and also did casual stage crew work at the SJT, when as part of a writing-for-theatre module, his play The Edge was submitted to Connal Orton and became one of three plays chosen to be shown to Alan Ayckbourn; he being so impressed it was commissioned for the 1997 summer season in The McCarthy auditorium. The psychological thriller centred on a stockbroker who apparently wakes with precognition. It was a play which, in its origins, harkened back to Stephen Joseph's original season at the Library Theatre where all the writers were drawn from a course he had taken.
43) Perfect Pitch by John Godber (1998)
The 1998 summer season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was a celebration of both the SJT and new writing and was phenomenally ambitious. The 10x10 season was devised by Alan Ayckbourn and featured 10 world or British premieres by 10 authors performed by a repertory company of 10 actors. Performed in The Round were world premieres by Alan Ayckbourn, Tim Firth and John Godber - who despite his long association with Hull Truck Theatre and currently Wakefield Theatre with his own company, has also written four plays which have premiered at the SJT. The remaining seven plays were produced in The McCarthy or The Restaurant and included world premieres by new or upcoming writers such as Robert Shearman, Steve Carley, Stuart Fortey, Neil Monaghan and Michael Fosbrook. Such was the ambition of the season any of the plays could well have been highlighted, but Perfect Pitch takes its place here to illustrate the relationship between the theatre and another of the UK's most successful and popular playwrights. Arguably the 10x10 season has been the peak of the SJT's new-writing achievements since the company moved there in 1996 and perhaps highlights a recent lack of ambition at the venue, particularly in an anniversary season such as this year which will see just one new play premiered.
44) House & Garden by Alan Ayckbourn (1999)
And talking of successful and popular playwrights, the decade ended with one of Alan Ayckbourn's epic theatre events, House & Garden. The idea for this can be traced back to the 1970s, but only became viable with a venue which had two stage spaces relatively close to each other. House & Garden consists of two plays designed to be performed simultaneously and sharing the same company. House was staged in The McCarthy and Garden in The round with the company moving from the garden to the house or vice versa. Not just a gimmick, it offered a look at how perceptions of characters change from different perspectives, but also answered the question of where do characters go when they leave the stage - in this case, the other stage! The lines between fiction and reality were further blurred with a post-show event in which the fete being organised through the plays took place in the theatre's foyer with the company (acting and stage management) manning stalls and events alongside volunteers. Alan Ayckbourn never seriously believed it would be performed again, but the National Theatre made it an even bigger event (complete with beer-tent and grass in the foyer) and it has since been staged with considerable ingenuity by both professional and amateur companies.
45) A Listening Heaven by Torben Betts (1999)
Torben Betts is a fine example of one of the most successful playwrights to have worked early in his professional career at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. A Listening Heaven was his first professionally produced full-length play and was directed by Natasha Betteridge. Torben was the first Resident Dramatist Attachment (essentially resident dramatist) at the new Stephen Joseph Theatre and would go on to premiere three more plays at the SJT over the following decade whilst also achieving success in London. Torben is regarded as a major voice in British playwrighting and the past two years have seen acclaimed major productions of his plays Invincible and Muswell Hill in London and he has frequently talked about how the SJT gave him his first major break as a playwright.
46) Larkin With Women by Ben Brown (1999)
This feature has tried not to repeat playwrights within the same decade, but occasionally it becomes difficult to ignore a playwright who has two (or more) significant productions with in the same decade. And it would be impossible not to include Ben Brown's Larkin With Women in the list of significant new writing. Having enjoyed great success with All Things Considered in 1996, Ben's follow-up came three years later with the award-winning and critically acclaimed Larkin With Women, a play looking at the life and relationships of the poet Philip Larkin. Featuring an astonishing central performance by Oliver Ford Davies and directed by Alan Strachan. this was again a play which did not obviously shout out success or audience-pleasing, yet achieved both and is, rightly, considered one of the most significant new plays to be premiered at the SJT over the decades.
47) Damsels In Distress by Alan Ayckbourn (2001)
A slight cheat here as this is a trilogy of plays - which we're counting as one entry. Damsels In Distress was Alan Ayckbourn's solution to wanting to re-introduce a repertory company into the SJT whilst also creating a financially prudent summer season. His solution was a trilogy of plays which all shared the same set - three Docklands' apartments - with a company of seven actors. The plays themselves were unrelated aside from thematic links, the set and the same actors; but the stories were all completely unrelated. The trilogy actually began as a duology, but midway through the season, Alan had an idea for a third play which was introduced and was arguably the most well-regarded of a very successful season. The three plays - GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay - have all become popular parts of the Ayckbourn canon although are rarely all staged together, which was one of the pleasures of the original Scarborough production and the opportunity to see actors playing very different roles across three plays.
48) The Safari Party by Tim Firth (2002)
Tim Firth's break-out hit as a playwright was Neville's Island which premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1992. Ten years on, he wrote another play which proved to be a huge hit with Scarborough audiences and marked a significant milestone for its director Alan Ayckbourn. The Safari Party was - as the title suggests - a play about a dinner party in which each course (and act of the play) takes place at a different residence. Although Tim Firth has had a number of successes at Scarborough, this is probably second only to Neville's Island and went on to a production featuring the original company at the opening of the renovated Hampstead Theatre. The play also marked the final time Alan Ayckbourn would direct a play not written by himself - as of writing - with him directing both the world premiere and its London premiere.
49) The Kaiser & I by Stuart Fortey (2002)
Stuart Fortey was first produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre during the 10x10 season in 1998 and was followed by this gentle and well-received play about a German officer during the first world war taking dancing lessons with an English teacher and the relationship which ensues. Produced with minimal staging in the theatre's restaurant, the play was part of a busy summer season which saw seven plays produced in the restaurant at lunchtimes (during a year which saw the SJT produce 14 plays by the end of the summer season - in comparison, the SJT this year will have produced just five plays by the end of the summer season). Whilst the restaurant has never been an ideal space for productions, it was popular during the first decade of the theatre's existence and plays such as this, which eschewed the need for complex staging, are a good example of how the space could be used to great success.
50) Making Waves by Stephen Clark (2003)
Stephen Clark's debut at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was with a play with a plot which seems an obvious idea for a theatre in the seaside town of Scarborough, but which had previously never been touched upon. The play following the family of the father who is a coxwain of the local life-boat and the stresses that can put on relationships and family life. The play was notable directed by Daniel Slater, who had previously been an RNLI coxswain as a student and was sponsored by the Friends of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, who for many years supported the theatre by helping to fund a new production each year. Stephen was one of several plays encouraged by and who worked with Connal Orton's successor, Laura Harvey, who was Literary manager at the venue from 1998 - 2005.
51) Spittin’ Distance by Toby Davis & Grant Olding (2005)
In 2005, the theatre launched a sadly short-lived initiative called Micro Musicals, driven largely by the Associate Director Laurie Sansom - who has since gone on to become the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Micro Musicals offered an opportunity to submit new short musicals to the theatre for the chance to be one of three low budget productions staged as part of the season. A professional company performed in all three chosen pieces, of which Spittin' Distance was probably the break-out hit. A profoundly silly piece about a pit-spitting competition in the town of Sans Serif, the piece received critical praise and was later work-shopped at the National Theatre. Sadly, the Micro Musicals idea was never revived at the theatre as it would have been interesting to see what it would have developed into if given the chance to grow.
52) Playing God by Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran (2005)
One of founding principles of the SJT from Stephen Joseph was playwriting should be encouraged wherever it could be found even - as in this case - it's from two well-known and popular television writers making their first step into theatre with a world premiere of their first play. Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran are the writers behind television hits such as Shine On Harvey Moon, The New Statesman and Goodnight Sweetheart but in 2005 they came to Scarborough following a chance meeting with Alan Ayckbourn, who apparently gave them a crash course in playwriting! The play followed a terminally ill rock legend trying to organise the lives of those around him, even beyond the grave. The pair subsequently had success in theatre with the musicas Dreamboats and Petticoats and Save The Last Dance For Me.
53) Purvis by Nick Warburton (2006)
First produced at the SJT in 2004, Nick Warburton is a writer who since then has had considerable success on stage, radio and television. Nick's second play at the theatre was Purvis in 2006, a one act comedy produced in the SJT's restaurant about a widower who becomes a health and safety officer at a church - a job to which he is singularly ill-suited - and his friendship with the vicar's wife. Like many of Nick's plays, Purvis was also produced for BBC Radio and his plays have become popular with amateur communities around the country, recalling the success of the theatre's first resident writer David Campton and his long-standing popularity with amateur companies since the 1960s.
54) Jack Lear by Ben Benison (2008)
2008 marked Alan Ayckbourn's final full year as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the final new play to be produce under his auspices (that was not one of his plays) was Jack Lear by Ben Benison and a typically adventurous commission by the SJT. This was an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, but centred around an ageing trawler man blessed only with daughters rather than sons. The two eldest daughters fighting for the attentions of a solicitor who holds the power of attorney over Lear's possessions after his death. The play was dominated by Northern Broadsides founder and Artistic Director Barrie Rutter in the Lear role and not an easy sell given the script was written in alliterative blank verse, but was a fine example of the theatre taking risks with its new writing policy and having confidence in a first-time writer for the SJT.
55) A Christmas Carol by Chris Monks (2009)
And then everything changed as after 37 years as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Alan Ayckbourn stepped down in March 2009 to be succeeded by Chris Monks. A Christmas Carol marked his first original contribution to the SJT with an adaptation of Charles Dicken's famous ghost story and the first of five new adaptations by Chris Monks of existing works during his six years as Artistic Director.
56) The Price Of Everything by Fiona Evans (2010)
With the Literary Department at the Stephen Joseph Theatre essentially closed between 2006 and 2013 and not accepting submissions during most of this period, there were very few home-grown writers during the past decade at the theatre (and certainly not a stable of writers as found between the '80s - '00s at the SJT). In one of the four premieres at theatre in 2010, Fiona Evans was commissioned having had previous success with her award-winning play, Scarborough (although this had never been staged at the SJT and the writer had no links with the town) producing The Price Of Everything; a play which was inspired by real-life events. Fiona would go on to to write a second new play for the theatre, Geordie Sinatra - produced in association with Live Theatre in Newcastle - in 2012.
57) The Hunt For The Scroobious Pip by Andrew Pollard (2010)
For large sections of the 1990s and 2000s, the family show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre during the Christmas period was written by Alan Ayckbourn, but following his most recent - Miss Yesterday - in 2004, there followed a period in which the theatre did not have a distinctive voice in this slot. Visiting productions from the Northern Broadsides provided the solution though and enjoyed success with productions The Waterbabies, Heidi and Treasure Island, all three written by Andrew Pollard and directed by Adam Sunderland. The duo were commissioned by the SJT to produce the family play in The McCarthy in 2010 and came up with The Hunt For The Scroobious Pip; a hugely inventive, interactive show based on the nonsense poems of Edward Lear. Together they would create a number of inventive and creative family shows for the SJT such as The Nutcracker Prince, Cinderella and Beauty And The Beast: A Space Adventure. Although written by Andrew, the shows were very much a team effort and ushered in during those four years a very distinctive voice to the theatre's family shows at Christmas and arguably, tare he most significant contribution to new writing at the venue during the tenure of Artistic Director Chris Monks.
58) The Hoarder devised by Adam Sunderland & Adam Glass (2013)
Adam Sunderland was also in part responsible for a highly unusual play for the SJT, working with Adam Glass to produce the devised piece The Hoarder, which drew critical acclaim at the SJT and on tour. The piece was a co-production between Adam's company, Sticks, and the SJT and based around the real-life story of the chronic hoarder Richard Wallace. It is one of the few new plays at the SJT which was crated entirely in the rehearsal room as the script was improvised during rehearsals with the actors David Glass and Leigh Symonds working alongside a musician, Jenni Molloy, who also improvised the music for the piece. The piece was revived the following year for tour and is one of the more unusual and distinctive pieces to have emerged from the SJT during its 60 year history.
59) ScreenPlay by Jimmy Osborne, Isabel Wright, Kate Brower and Claudine Toutoungi (2014)
A bit of a cheat here as in 2013, the Literary Department at the SJT was revived under the theatre's newly appointed Associate Director Henry Bell and the first public result was the show ScreenPlay highlighting four short one act plays by four different authors. Henry's impetus had been to call for submissions relating to the idea of presenting four plays set in Scarborough's Odeon theatre at different periods in history; the SJT is a conversion of the town's former Odeon which closed in 1988 and the end-stage McCarthy Theatre retains many of the architectural features of the original cinema. The result was four plays: An Empty Seat by Jimmy Osborne, The Illicit Dark by Isabel Wright, Double Feature by Kate Brower and Bit Part by Claudine Toutoungi - set in 1936, 1974, 1973 and 1998 respectively. The plays were developed in conjunction with the Literary Department and resulted in an interesting, practically site-specific piece of theatre. Sadly - as of 2015 - the Literary Department appears to have come to a close again as the last theatrical submission window was in 2014, having produced ScreenPlay and a full-length play, Slipping by Claudine Toutoungi, during autumn 2014.
60) Hero’s Welcome by Alan Ayckbourn (2015)
My final choice of significant new plays over six decades has to end reflecting the journey from the opening of the Library Theatre on 14 July 1955 with Eleanor D Glaser's new play, Circle Of Love, to the only new play being produced at the SJT in 2015; the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Hero's Welcome. It would be nice to say that the journey that has seen more than 325 new plays premiere in Scarborough over 60 years ended with a plethora of choice from 2015 and Stephen Joseph’s hopes for a theatre centred on promoting and nurturing new writing was plain to see. Sadly, the theatre chose in its anniversary year to look backwards rather than forwards and only this play premiered at the SJT in 2015. It is, however, also the right play to choose to end this series and to highlight the work of the man who has arguably done more than anyone else to keep Stephen Joseph’s legacy alive and who is the single most successful playwright to have emerged from Scarborough as well as being Stephen’s protege. Just as Alan Ayckbourn kept Stephen’s ambitions as a vital part of the SJT during his 37 year tenure as Artistic Director, one must hope that with the announcement of a new team to lead the SJT, new writing will once again rise to prominence at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and that 60 years from now, both the theatre and Stephen Joseph’s legacy will still be going strong.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the author.
All opinions and views expressed within this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Alan Ayckbourn.