A theatrical “meal” with the prolific Sir Alan Ayckbourn

When you  have written so many pieces for the stage and reached your late seventies you’d think it would be time to slow down…wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it in Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s case. As I have done many times in the past it was off to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre last weekend to see his latest productions, two of which were born this year.scar

Scarborough always seems such a long way away – even when you get to York it’s still another good hour to the Yorkshire coast. So perhaps approaching it via the Humber Bridge would be easier (??) Nope! Still a long way. But as seaside towns go it’s welcoming and manages not to be too garish and, of course, it has possibly the most famous theatre in the round in the world. Going to the theatre there is always a pleasure and I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of premieres at the venue including Wildest Dreams (my very first visit to the (old) SJT back in 1991), By Jeeves (the musical written in collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the first show at the current SJT), House and Garden (the two interlinked plays performed simultaneously in two different auditoria) and Impossible Fiction (in which I feature briefly as an offstage character – long story behind that one) to name but a few. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have attended summer schools run by the theatre and featuring the great man himself sharing his secrets about writing, directing and his very perceptive thoughts on the human condition.

So I’m definitely no stranger to the environs of this particular seaside town which has all the usual fish and chip emporia, seafood stalls, trips round the bay, donkeys (sadly not in evidence), rock manufacturers and bucket and spade shops. These latter seem to have been somewhat eclipsed by the new breed of PoundStore/Land/World/Whatever shops ubiquitous in most towns these days and which added to the air of faded grandeur. I was particuarly surprised to see the state of disrepair into which the Futurist Theatre on the South Bay seafront had fallen. Once home to premiers acts it is now permanently shut and faces the threat of the bulldozers.

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But of course I was here to attend another theatre entirely; one housed in the former art deco Odeon cinema and pleasingly dominated by the plays of the Amazing Mr A. This time round I was here for something called The Ayckbourn Triple – an all day event featuring his three most current productions. Reflecting on it afterwards, it felt like attending a substantial three course meal where tastebuds were tickled, surprised and ultimately satiated.

cpLate morning saw the hor d’oeuvre served up. This was Consuming Passions, two half hour pieces entitled Premonitions and Repercussions originally performed separately in the theatre Bistro at lunchtimes but now played sequentially in the McCarthy auditorium. Officially recognised as Ayckbourn’s 80th full length play, the storyline revolves round a murder plot which may or may not happen and may or may not be fantasy. The writer has taken to some cheeky self referencing of late so it was fun to see the setting of the Calvinu restaurant (from Time Of Our Lives) again with two of its many waiters – still being played by the same actor of course. The plot was straight out of Hitchcock so heavily referenced in both Communicating Doors and The Revengers’ Comedies and the central figure was definitely reminiscent of Susan in Woman In Mind.

After lunch at the traditional Scarborough haunt of Bonets and a wander round the town centre shops (identical in most resects to the shops in town centres almost anywhere else) it was time to return to the SJT. This was for a revival of the 1987 play Henceforward… ; it was definitley the most substantial of the three offerings. Set in the future (or is that now the present…or the past?) it paints a bleak yet very funny picture of life somewhere on the remote reaches of the Northern Line and features androids, synthsised music, roaming street gangs (the Daughters of Darkness and the Sons of Bitches, since you ask) and some pertinent ideas about the responsibilities of the artist. The play brought back some happy memories of my own production of the piece and the fun we had filming the video content; this meant I could both direct and appear in the production as one of the video only characters. It’s good to see that the play has (mostly) stood the test of time. The central part of Jerome is, I think a hard ask. Onstage throughout but often quite morose and taciturn I recall that it seemed to elude Ian McKellen when it was played in London. Hats off then to Bill Chamipon in this production who provided a solid centre to the piece and who even managed to elicit some sympathy for his hurt regarding his rarely seen daughter.

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Bill Champion and Jacqueline King as Jerome and Nan

So that was the theatrical main course, meaning it must be time for real dinner (following this?) This was at the highly recommendable Café Fish. Not noted for its cuisine in former years, Scarborough is certanly looking up gastronomy wise.

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The Karoke Theatre Company with mystery guest

Then back to the SJT for the theatrical dessert (too many food references!) a live semi-improvised entertainment  called The Karaoke Theatre Company. I didn’t quite know what to expect from this piece and I’m glad it came last as it was light fare which required less concentration. Part Whose Line Is It Anyway?, part Generation Game,  essentially it was a series of playlets (farce, regency drama, Scandi noir thriller etc.) with varying levels of audience participation. Well, having (dis)graced the RSC and Barbican stages this year I couldn’t resist the temptation to appear at my favourite small venue. So I found myself voluntering to be one of the narrators in the gothic horror piece and being encouraged to release “my inner Brian Blessed” – can’t think why they came up with that particular ACTORRRR! I felt thankful that I’ve had plenty of practice at sight reading over the years as there were some tricky phrases to get the tongue round. And I found myself losing the thread of the storyline as I concentrated on what I had to say next…so, not really “in the moment” there then. Anyway it was a good piece of fun and an ambition fulfilled so I enjoyed myself – even if nobody else did.

So there we have it, a meal for the mind and the soul in North Yorkshire. Sorry if the title of this piece was a little misleading. I didn’t actually have a regular meal with Alan Ayckbourn….. though I did once have afternoon tea with him…but that’s another story.

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