REVIEW: Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough ****

“Spatial continuum anomaly”: Naomi Petersen’s wartime Lily and Bill Champion’s pandemic-times Rob bridge the age gap in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until July 3. Box office: 01723 370541 and at sjt.uk.com

WHO else but director emeritus and Scarborough knighted playwright Alan Ayckbourn could be at the helm of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s first in-house production of 2021.

He has been chomping at the bit, as the racehorse saying goes, writing even more prolifically and recording and sound-editing two audio plays, Anno Domino and the reawakened ghost story Haunting Julia, as lockdown followed lockdown.

He has missed the interaction with actors and audience alike, as last summer’s premiere of Truth Will Out never did reveal its topical virus truths in The Round.

How joyful to see Sir Alan, 82 and stick in hand, taking his familiar back-row seat for the Tuesday’s press night performance. It was another sign of live theatre’s resurrection, even with the continuing need for face masks, social distancing and a reduced capacity.

The Girl Next Door is premiere number 85, and glory be, it is inventive, witty, poignant, moving and surprising in the best Ayckbourn tradition, with plenty of mischievous humour too, whether digging into politics, Zoom, love, war, English characteristics, our past and present, what has changed, what hasn’t.

All this is wrapped in a tale suffused with magic realism (or not, you decide!) and Ayckbourn’s familiar relish with playing with time. In this case, he applies the term “spatial continuum anomaly” for surely the first time, along with references to Doctor Who and Star Wars.

Standard attire for a Zoom meeting: Alexandra Mathie’s Westminster civil servant Alex at home in The Girl Next Door. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Ayckbourn’s frustration at his absence from the rehearsal room and stage since 2019 finds a messenger on stage in the form of actor Rob Hathaway (Ayckbourn stalwart Bill Champion), head in his hands, stuck at home in August 2020, sixty, sagging and sad.

He laments the hiatus from all that he loves about theatre, above all the connection, and no, Shakespeare sonnets being performed by glove puppets online is no substitute.

Bored with the prospect of watching yet another box set or daytime TV after losing his role, for disciplinary reasons, as the star of the nation’s favourite TV period drama, National Fire Service, he keeps re-living his past as George ‘Tiger’ Jennings, wartime hero and living firefighter legend, rather than living for the day or even having his morning Cornflakes.

Lockdown has been shared with his big sister, very sensible civil servant Alex (Ayckbourn regular Alexandra Mathie), who has just finished a Zoom meeting with the Chancellor (female, as it happens). We know the ever-sharp Ayckbourn is on the ball because she is wearing pyjamas beneath a jacket, as so many have!

Champion’s enervated Rob is suddenly perked up by the sight of a stranger, a young woman hanging out the washing in the next-door garden. Who is she, he wonders, as the owners, the Jessops, have chosen to isolate at their second home in the Dorset country.

She, we shall learn, is Lily (Naomi Petersen), and on her side of the hedge, it is August 1942, wartime London is under bombardment; the garden has been given over to growing vegetables, with an Anderson shelter beyond. Husband Alf (Linford Johnson) is away doing his bit for Blighty in a tank regiment in Africa; their two children, six and seven, are away too, out of contact, evacuated to somewhere in the country.

What’s it all about, Alfie? Linford Johnson’s 1942 soldier-on-leave Alf sips on a 21st century bottled beer in The Girl Next Door. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

We note the differences, beautifully drawn out by designer Kevin Jenkins: a hosepipe, security lights and characterless all mod cons in the Hathaway kitchen; a watering can, no outdoor lighting and a stove and hand-operated washing equipment for Lily. As ever in an Ayckbourn production, the doors are cut off at halfway but are used almost as regularly as in a farce.

For all the presence of Alex, Rob is adrift; Lily is alone, and through Ayckbourn’s aforementioned “spatial continuum anomaly”, their worlds meet, with all the bewildering confusions and misunderstandings that go with that.

Born in 1939, and so a wartime London child, Ayckbourn recalls a “sort of lockdown”  of that time, crowding into Anderson shelters and subway stations, and so he draws parallels with the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-2021. Rob keeps mentioning social distancing; Lily mistakes the security lighting for searchlights; Mathie’s Alex mentions she has a wife; Lily is unnerved by the machine-dominated kitchen. Ayckbourn revels in both the similarities and contrasts with the past.

He even plays with knowing about the past, and what  burden that may place on Rob if he were to try to change the course of history. Rather than Back To The Future fun and games, however, Ayckbourn keeps this thread – in the story of Alf – on a more serious trajectory, one of intrigue and mystery in the more melancholic yet still hopeful second half.

On top of it all, in his own words, The Girl Next Door is “an affirmation of love across the generations”, a love that stops feckless, twice divorced Rob in his tracks.

There is a second love story too here: Ayckbourn’s abiding love of theatre, its magic, mystery, wonder, profundity and possibilities, brought to life by a wonderful cast, with a typically brilliant Ayckbourn drinking scene to boot. How blessed we are to be sharing his vision, his playfulness, his wisdom, anew.

Review copyright of The Press, York

Alan Ayckbourn returns to his rehearsal room for the first time in 19 months

Alan Ayckbourn in the garden of his Scarborough home in May 2020 during the first lockdown. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

ON Tuesday, playwright Alan Ayckbourn returned to his empty, dark, silent rehearsal room next door for the first time since September 2019.

After months and months of work, restlessness but no live play, the Scarborough knight is back where he feels most at home: directing a new Ayckbourn work, The Girl Next Door, from the rehearsal studio in his Longwestgate abode.

“My spirit in lockdown had begun to pall, especially in this one, as I’ve had no springboard for my work,” he says. “Like everyone else, I decided to keep busy at all costs: I wrote play after play, four actually, but they just lay there, unexplored, neglected, unfulfilled, because I had no feedback from actors or audiences of course, so I couldn’t move forward.

“I was parked on the runway, seeing where I might fly off to next.” The permission for take-off has now been granted: The Girl Next Door, 82-year-old Sir Alan’s 85th premiere, will open in The Round at his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he is Director Emeritus after 37 years as artistic director from 1972 to 2009.

“I wrote it back in spring 2020. I like to think of it as a lockdown love story,” he says of his touching, tender and humorous reflection on the ability of love to rise above adversity and reach across the years.

Sir Alan, who turned 82 on April 12, had experienced the frustration of his 2020 world premiere of Truth Will Out, ironically a prescient play about a virus, albeit of the computer variety, being knocked into the long grass by the first lockdown as the SJT lay dormant from March 17.

For all his unstinting productivity – not only the four plays but also audio-stream recordings of the previously unproduced Anno Domino and a Christmas revival of his ghost play Haunting Julia – Sir Alan has been itching to intereact with actors again.

“Just go for it,” he said as he anticipated Tuesday’s first session. “I’ve been counting down the days to when we start rehearsals just after the Bank Holiday.

“All I can say is, we will be ready! The theatre has been terrific in that respect, so supportive; the play being confirmed for the summer in January; one production meeting; auditions on Zoom, even if the reality with Zoom is there’s always a beat between what they say and what you hear, so it just sounds flat. All we need now is for Boris to panic.”

Panic not. Let’s stay positive and eagerly await The Girl Next Door, a play Sir Alan set about writing as soon as he finished work on Anno Domino in early May and completed by late-May in the best Ayckbourn tradition of quick work.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster artwork for Alan Ayckbourn’s June world premiere of his 85th play, The Girl Next Door

The play is a four-hander, as Ayckbourn adapted to Covid times when large casts are not viable for the foreseeable future in this new age of social bubbles, and the setting is two neighbouring houses on the same London street during August 2020.

“But all is not as it seems,” he says. It never is in a play by a playwright who loves playing with time. Here he populates one house with actor Rob Hathaway, 60, and his sister, Alex, 62, a government financial advisor. In the other are the Tindles, soldier Alf, 26, and wife Lily, 24.

“The opening image is Rob seeing the young woman putting washing on the line and in his mind he’s thinking, ‘she has no right to be there’ because the couple who live next door have chosen to go away to their house in the country in lockdown.”

Without giving too much away, past is meeting present, drawing on Sir Alan’s own childhood experiences in London in the Second World War.

“I felt that spirit of optimism as I wrote it because the country needs a bit of optimism right now,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants to watch is someone saying ‘there’s no more hope, folks’.

“So writing the play, it was my life meeting me coming back, because my first memories were of lockdown in wartime, sheltering under the beds, waiting for the bombs to drop. Now we’re sheltering at home, waiting for the germs to land.

“It’s interesting that the parallels are there, though I don’t want to rub them in, so all I can say is, ‘don’t worry, folks, we’ve been here before; the world won’t end’, though many feared it was in wartime.”

Ayckbourn was born in April 1939. “So I have these images of being on my mother’s lap down in the tube station, not wanting to wake her up, and she not wanting to disturb me,” he says.

“I remember the shelters that were great for children, and you could play under the kitchen table, so it was quite a time – and then there was my Mickey Mouse gas mark, with the big mouse ears, which they gave out to children as standard issue. They were like something Stephen King would have been proud of.”

Ayckbourn enjoys playing with the two eras separated by 80 years. “It’s fun to do; there’s a sort of selective release of information where the art is to make the audience feel secure, with a level playing field, but then you hopefully stay slightly ahead of them, trying to get them to second guess you!” he says.

Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door will run at a socially distanced, Covid-secure Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from June 4 to July 3. Box office: sjt.uk.com.

Copyright of The Press, York

Alan Ayckbourn finds his voice for audio online version of ghost play Haunting Julia

Alan Ayckbourn in his garden at his Scarborough home in May 2020. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

GHOST stories are as much a part of Christmas as pantomime dames.

What a delight, then, that Alan Ayckbourn is revisiting his 1994 play Haunting Julia in a brand-new audio recording that will feature the voice of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s director emeritus.

Or, rather, the three voices of Ayckbourn, 81, who will be playing all three parts in the online version, available exclusively on the SJT website, sjt.uk.com, from December 1 to January 5.

Directed by Ayckbourn, the “comic but scary” Haunting Julia was recorded at his Scarborough home studio, where he and his wife, Heather Stoney, had made his first ever audio play, his 84th premiere Anno Domino, in the first lockdown.

Released by the SJT in May, Ayckbourn’s tale of marital breakdown and toxic politics drew a worldwide audience. “We enjoyed the experience,” says Alan. “I think it went pretty well and the response was good, very positive.

“Although we did jump in at the deep end a bit, as we hadn’t acted on stage for years, Heather even more so than me.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia, described by Alan Ayckbourn as “a second Woman In Black”

“The only time I would act is when doing a new play and I would act it out at the first reading.”

After the Coronavirus pandemic put paid to this summer’s Ayckbourn’s stage premiere of Truth Will Out, he turned his attention to Anno Domino instead. “That kept my hand in, when the lockdown was announced and we thought, ‘what the hell are we going to do?’,” he recalls.

“My new play was kicked into touch, along with everything else, but then I got the taste for the audio play and we ended up rather enjoying it – though Heather has had enough after one play! So, I thought I’d do my only all-male play.”

Ayckbourn, who played characters ranging in age from teenage to septuagenarian in Anno Domino, will now take the parts of Julia’s father, Joe, her former boyfriend, Andy, and psychic Ken in Haunting Julia, wherein “other voices” – previously off stage – are provided by Naomi Petersen.

Haunting Julia is set 12 years after the suicide of musical prodigy Julia Lukin. Her father Joe, still struggling with her death, meets with her boyfriend and a psychic to seek out the truth, but some questions are better left unanswered.

“Over the years, I have always enjoyed creating off-stage characters almost as much as on-stage ones. They serve to provide, at their simplest, a depth and perspective to an overall stage picture,” says Alan. 

“I consider Julia Lukin to be among the most complex and intriguing of my characters never physically to appear. Although a male three-hander, the play definitely belongs to her.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for the 2020 audio version of Haunting Julia, performed and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Haunting Julia was premiered at the SJT in its former home at Westwood in 1994 and its ghostly presence has haunted many theatres since then, not least in two revivals at the SJT.

“I started it as a response to the phenomenal success of The Woman In Black, the most successful play we ever did, thinking ‘oh, there’s gold in them thar hills’.”

Seven years would pass between the SJT premiere of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella and Ayckbourn’s birth of Haunting Julia, his first ghost play, as he strove to settle on a distinctive, winning format.

“You have to build up the audience’s confidence in the story first, and then scare them, which is not that different from a farce, where you’re trying to make them laugh by surprising them,” he says.

“The first thing I discarded was the supernatural. Instead, I wanted to explore these three men, with the girl, Julia, being a very strong off-stage character, having an enormous influence on them.

“I became interested in writing a séance, where the three men see her from different angles, creating her as a hologram where the audience will know her better than the three men.

“It was an exploration that took me on another journey, rather than pursuing the P D James thriller style, but it still has a spooky element to it, though the aim was not to make people jump from horror shocks.”

Alan Ayckbourn with his cast for the 1994 premiere of Haunting Julia. Picture: Copyright of Scarborough News

Dealing with pressure became the driving force of the play. “I wanted to set up a story where the parents had a gifted child and the obvious gift you could give them was a musical talent,” says Alan.

“Children rarely write a novel at three or four, but they do create elemental music, so I wrote about an ordinary couple who gave birth, quite by chance, to a musical prodigy, and then show their bewilderment, yet pride, thinking ‘it’s not our music, we listen to pop music’, whereas she becomes a serious Radio 3 composer.

“Then, because of the mounting pressure that ends her life, it was fascinating for me to explore what that meant to the people left behind. Suicide is tragic and awful, but what about those people left, who ask ‘what did we do wrong?’. The questions they ask themselves are just as awful as the suicide itself.”

Analysing how being gifted, be it musical, sporting or whatever, can be isolating, even to the point of someone contemplating suicide, Alan says: “It’s always interesting reading about people you admire, and you read the section where they say they ‘got so depressed, they felt they were going nowhere’.

“You think, ‘why did they lose confidence in their special gift?’. On the other hand, is it something they don’t quite understand or treat in the way they should? I don’t think I solved that question.”

As with Anno Domino, Alan faced the prospect of recording differing, distinguishable voices for the audio play. “Joe is much older than the other two, and they are all well-defined,” he says. “Joe is a bluff, successful northern businessman; Andy was a contemporary of Julia, being her boyfriend, and his accent is more southern RP [Received Pronunciation].

“Ken, I had to find another voice for, and he comes into my stock range of little men that started with Sidney Hopcroft [a small-time tradesman] in Absurd Person Singular in 1972, so I’ve given Ken my own native Cockney.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 1999 revival of Haunting Julia

The age range “wasn’t that challenging,” reveals Alan. “I would do Joe in the morning, when my voice was rougher, and Joe and Ken in the afternoon.”

Important to the recording too is Ayckbourn’s prowess with soundscapes, or “sound effects as they used to be called”. “When I do a new play, I always do the soundscapes,” says Alan, who honed his skills when working for five years at the BBC Sound Studios in Leeds.

“For years, back in the Sixties, I was dubbing stuff on reel-to-reel recordings, tapes, then mini-discs. Now it’s all computers and it’s become increasingly sophisticated, where I can mix in all sorts of effects.

“When doing a production at the SJT, the main scenic elements, apart from the set, are sound and lighting, so the soundscapes can be even more crucial to an audio play – though Haunting Julia doesn’t call for huge soundscapes, except at the end.” You will have to listen to find out what that ending involves.

Rather than recording a new work, Alan settled on exhuming Haunting Julia for the SJT’s winter season. “I could see a time-frame, once I’d finished Anno Domino, that if we started another recording, we wouldn’t be finished much before autumn, which would be good for the Christmas programme, and Paul [artistic director Paul Robinson] jumped at it,” he says.

“With the second lockdown now happening, thankfully we got it in the can in good time. It’s opportune timing for a ghost story; I don’t think I could have launched it on Midsummer’s Day, but now, with the light drawing in for winter, if you’re going to tell a story around a fire, then a ghost story is ideal.”

Alan Ayckbourn and his wife, actress Heather Stoney, in their garden in the spring when they recorded his debut audio play, Anno Domino. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

At 81, prolific writer-director Alan is at an age where the greatest care must be taken in the face of Covid-19; likewise, Heather has turned 80.

“I’m still optimistic for the future of theatre, but not so optimistic for myself. We’re in the vulnerable bracket,” he says. “Days of jumping into rehearsals with a lot of actors breathing all over each other is not a good idea, so I’m not going to be doing that.

“The other thing is, how long will I keep going? The only dispiriting feeling is thinking, ‘Are my new plays going to get done?’. There are four or five now. Normally, a play is written and then it’s performed and that’s wonderful encouragement, but for me, until a play is done, has run the gamut of rehearsals, performances, audience response and post-mortem, I’m marking time, but the plays keep coming.”

Tickets for Haunting Julia can be booked any time up to and including January 5 2021, either via https://www.sjt.uk.com/event/1078/haunting_julia or from the box office, initially by phone only from 10am to noon, Monday to Friday, on 01723 370541 until December 2. Opening times for booking in person will be announced as soon as possible.

Once a £12 ticket has been bought, the buyer can access the audio show as often as they want between December 1 and January 5, and as many people as are in their household or social bubble can listen in. Go to the website for more details.

Naomi Petersen: Voices from beyond in Haunting Julia

The Domino effect as Ayckbourn’s hit audio play extends online run by a week to July 2

Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney: Performing together for the first time in 56 years in Anno Domino. Picture:Tony Bartholomew

ALAN Ayckbourn’s debut audio play, Anno Domino, will run online for an extra week in response to huge demand from theatregoers worldwide.

Available exclusively on the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s website, at sjt.uk.com, Ayckbourn’s 84th premiere had a cut-off point of June 25 at 12 noon, but the deadline is being extended to July 2 at midday.

The extension was announced this morning after feedback suggested that plenty of theatre fans were still keen to listen to Ayckbourn, 81, and his wife, actress Heather Stoney, performing together for the first time in 56 years.

In one of his lighter pieces, charting the break-up of a long-established marriage and its domino effect on family and friends, Ayckbourn and Stoney play four characters each, aged 18 to mid-70s.

“We were just mucking about in our sitting room,” says former radio producer Ayckbourn, who wrote, directed and performed the lockdown play, as well as overseeing the sound effects at their Scarborough home.

The SJT’s artistic director, Paul Robinson, says of the extension: “So far, more than 12,500 people have heard Anno Domino, nearly 1,000 of them last weekend alone. That represents 31 complete sell-out performances in our Round auditorium, where Alan’s shows are usually premiered.

“People have listened in from all over the globe, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.

This could have been the last time: Heather Stoney and Alan Ayckbourn in the 1964 production of Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre. Now, instead, they are performing together again in Ayckbourn’s 2020 audio play Anno Domino

“We’re keen to make it accessible to as many people as possible, so we’ve decided to extend the listening period by a week, but this really will be your last opportunity to hear it!”

Anno Domino proved particularly popular in the United States – where Ayckbourn’s plays are performed regularly in New York – after being reviewed favourably in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and featuring on Morning Edition, the nationwide flagship show of National Public Radio.

This summer, Ayckbourn should have been directing the world premiere of his 83rd play, Truth Will Out, ironically featuring a virulent computer virus, preceded by his revival of his 1976 comedy, Just Between Ourselves, “the one with the car”, that would have opened last Thursday until the Covid-19 pandemic intervened.

Instead, recording at their Scarborough home, Ayckbourn and Stoney acted together for the first time since performing in William Gibson’s American two-hander Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964: Ayckbourn’s exit stage left from treading the boards on a professional stage.

Stoney’s last full season as an actress was at the SJT in the 1985 repertory company that presented the world premiere of Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind.

Ayckbourn says of Anno Domino: “The inspiration came from the idea that all relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand! And it only takes one couple to break up abruptly to take us all by surprise, then all of a sudden everyone is questioning their own unshakeable relationship.”  

This SJT production, with a final audio mix by Paul Steer, marks the first time Ayckbourn has both directed and performed in one of his own plays: one of a multitude of reasons to tune in before noon on July 2. Make the most of the extension. No excuses.

No press night tonight, but Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves is under discussion just between playwright and archivist

Alan Ayckbourn’s 1976 premiere of Just Between Ourselves at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

TONIGHT should have been the press night for Emeritus director Alan Ayckbourn’s revival of his 1976 garage-and-garden dark comedy, Just Between Ourselves, at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.

However, as with the no-longer upcoming world premiere of his 83rd play, Truth Will Out, the summer production of this rarely staged Seventies’ gem has been scuppered by the Coronavirus crisis that has led to the SJT being closed.

Instead, why not head to @ArchivingAlanA for Simon Murgatroyd’s exclusive new interview with the Scarborough playwright, who discusses his classic play and his thoughts on it now. Find it at archivingayckbourn.home.blog/?p=1100@Ayckbourn.

In “the one with the car”, set on four birthdays, Dennis thinks he is a master at DIY and a perfect husband but in reality he is neither. When he decides to sell his car, Neil turns up as a potential buyer, wanting it for his wife Pam’s birthday.

Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney in their Scarborough garden. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

In Ayckbourn’s dissection of man’s inhumanity to woman, as two couples become unlikely friends, aided and abetted by Dennis’s meddling live-in mother, Marjorie, a collision course becomes inevitable.

Sheridan Morley said of the 1977 West End premiere: “I had the feeling I’d seen Uncle Vanya rewritten by and for the Marx Brothers.” Bernard Levin’s verdict in The Sunday Times proclaimed: “Ayckbourn has gained an immense reputation with a series of plays in which puppets dance most divertingly on their strings. Here he has cut the strings and then stuck the knife into the puppets.”

How frustrating there will be no SJT revival this summer, but make sure you do listen to Ayckbourn’s 84th premiere, his audio play for lockdown, Anno Domino, starring Ayckbourn himself and his wife Heather Stoney,

In one of his lighter pieces, charting the break-up of a long-established marriage and its domino effect on family and friends, Ayckbourn, 81, and Stoney play four characters each, aged 18 to mid-70s. “We were just mucking about in our sitting room,” says Ayckbourn of a world premiere available for free exclusively on the SJT’s website, sjt.uk.com, until noon on June 25. 


REVIEW: Alan Ayckbourn’s audio play Anno Domino…and return to acting after 56 years

Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney in their Scarborough garden. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Review: Alan Ayckbourn’s Anno Domino, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, online at sjt.uk.com until 12 noon on June 25.

HERE is a sentence your reviewer never thought he would write. 81-year-old Alan Ayckbourn is playing an 18 year old in his new audio play.

Such is the impact of life in lockdown limbo, when the Corona crisis put paid to this summer’s Stephen Joseph Theatre premiere of the director emeritus’s 83rd play, Truth Will Out.

As chance would have it, that now mothballed play portends the impact of another type of virus, “a virulent computer virus that brings the country to a standstill, in a doomsday scenario piece, perhaps not too cheering in these darker days,” as Ayckbourn reflected.

“Still, I nearly predicted it correctly – I just got the wrong virus,” he said. Ayckbourn and SJT artistic director Paul Robinson promptly hatched a plan for an alternative AA premiere, one that could be recorded at home and aired exclusively on the Scarborough theatre’s website for free.

Former radio producer Ayckbourn duly unlocked a shelved piece of writing from its own lockdown for a new lease of life as the equivalent of a radio drama that marks the first time he has written, directed and performed in one of his plays. Not to mention parade his foley artist skills for sound effects, Anno Domino rose-pruning secateurs et al.

Heather Stoney and Alan Ayckbourn in Two For The Seesaw at Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964

Ayckbourn last appeared on a professional cast list in the 1964 Rotherham Civic Theatre programme for Two For The Seesaw. Sharing the stage in William Gibson’s American two-hander was Heather Stoney. “We were both totally unsuitable,” he recalled of taking on roles broken in by Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft.

Still in his twenties, Ayckbourn played a middle-aged Nebraskan businessman; Stoney, a young Jewish dancer from the Bronx. Fifty-six years since that exit stage left, Ayckbourn now plays four characters ranging in age from 18 to mid-70s, and so too does Stoney, his wife.

Billed by Ayckbourn as “altogether lighter and more optimistic” than Truth Will Out but still with “dark corners”, and introduced on the audio recording by Robinson as “huge fun”, Anno Domino charts the break-up of a long-established marriage and the domino effect that has on family and friends.

“The inspiration came from the idea that all relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand!” says Ayckbourn, from the land of sand, Scarborough. “And it only takes one couple to break up abruptly to take us all by surprise, then all of a sudden everyone is questioning their own unshakeable relationship.”

He divides Anno Domino into two acts, the 56-minute Preparations and 48-minute Repercussions. Those Preparations are for successful West Sussex architect Sam and reasonably successful lawyer Milly Martin’s silver wedding anniversary party, where we learn they will be making a big revelation.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre artwork for Alan Ayckbourn’s audio play Anno Domino

At the hotel party will be Sam’s parents, gruff retired criminal lawyer Ben, set in his wary ways, prone to forgetting to put on his trousers these days, “staggering on to the finishing line” with his brusque wife Ella, the play’s “darkest corner”.

There too will be Ben and Ella’s daughter Martha, a nursery-school teacher blighted by phobias and a troubled past, now six weeks into her relationship with garage mechanic Craig, a dour, kind-hearted Yorkshireman from Heckmondwike, after depressing “waste of space” poet Sefton left her.

Martha’s taciturn teen son Raymond, or Raz as he insists on being called, will eventually turn up too to, phone in hand, cheeky eye on young waitress Cinny.

The big revelation – the break-up announcement, brought on by boredom with each other – triggers the Repercussions of Act 2, where the dark corners are ultimately turned..

The best scenes, in interchanges with advice-seeking, out-of-his-depth Craig and later Martha, centre on the domineering, blinkered Ella, Ayckbourn once more writing so brilliantly for his female characters, recalling Woman In Mind. “Because I know men,” says Ella, who has the dismissive manner of a Lady Bracknell, when in fact she does not know men at all.

The poster artwork for Alan Ayckbourn’s virus play Truth Will Out, the SJT summer production scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic strictures

Ayckbourn, in that playing-things-down way of his, described making the play with Stoney as “just mucking about in our sitting room”, but it is an utter joy to hear them performing and, more to the point, performing together, with their natural chemistry,  moving from voice to voice, the recording given a final mix of pleasing clarity by Paul Steer. There is pleasure too in visualising the characters from those voices.

Ayckbourn’s tone may be “lighter”, from an S&M/M&S in-joke with the listener to the pronunciation of fuchsia, but the barb is still there too with digs at cynical, untrustworthy, ruthless, amoral lawyers and an authorial comment on the negative perception of “light on their feet” people in the arts. Yet again, he has found more to say about love too.

“Ah well, life goes on, I suppose, life goes on, doesn’t it,” says Ben, at the play’s close. It does indeed, and there may yet be life anew for Truth Will Out.

“I do hope it won’t get lost or forgotten,” said Ayckbourn in last week’s interview. “The SJT have agreed that this was merely a postponement. Shame to lose it as it’s a lot of fun. Watch this space, as they say.”

In the meantime, tune in to Anno Domino, an Ayckbourn rose in full bloom but with very prickly thorns too.

Charles Hutchinson

“I nearly predicted it correctly – I just got the wrong virus,” says Alan Ayckbourn after Corona crisis puts paid to Truth Will Out

ALAN Ayckbourn’s play number 83, Truth Will Out, will not be out this summer after Covid-19 intervened, but spookily another virus struck the Stephen Joseph Theatre world premiere. From within.

Let Ayckbourn explain. “Truth Will Out is concerned with another type of virus, a virulent computer virus, though, which brings the country to a standstill.

“A type of doomsday scenario piece and perhaps not too cheering in these darker days. Still, I nearly predicted it correctly – I just got the wrong virus.”

Truth Will Out may yet have its day at the Scarborough theatre. “I do hope it won’t get lost or forgotten,” says Ayckbourn. “The SJT have agreed that this was merely a postponement. Shame to lose it as it’s a lot of fun. Watch this space, as they say.”

Truth Won’t Out, but a new lockdown Ayckbourn play will, and he’s acting in it. UPDATED WITH INTERVIEW

Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney: Re-uniting as performers for the first time in 56 years in Anno Domino. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic decreed Truth Will Out would not be out this summer in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn responded by unlocking a new play in lockdown, Anno Domino.

Not only has he written it, but he is performing in the audio recording too, marking his return to acting, 58 years after his last appearance on a professional stage, no less.

What’s more, the 81-year-old playwright has teamed up with his wife, actress Heather Stoney, his co-star in that 1964 production, to record the new show, his 84th play.

Billed as a Stephen Joseph Theatre production, the world premiere of Anno Domino will be streaming for free exclusively on the SJT’s website, sjt.uk.com, from noon on Monday (May 25) to noon on June 25. 

Ayckbourn had been due to direct the world premiere of Truth Will Out, from August 20 to October 3, alongside his revival of his 1976 garage-and-garden dark comedy of four birthdays, Just Between Ourselves, in an SJT summer season completed by artistic director Paul Robinson’s production of The Ladykillers.

The domino effect: The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s 84th play, Anno Domino, streaming from May 25

However, once the SJT’s summer was scuppered by the Corona crisis, former radio producer Ayckbourn and Robinson hatched a plan to create a play that Ayckbourn and Stoney could record and present online.

Hey presto, Anno Domino, Ayckbourn’s audio account of the break-up of a long-established marriage and the domino effect that has on family and friends.

“The inspiration for Anno Domino came from the idea that all relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand!” says Ayckbourn. “And it only takes one couple to break up abruptly to take us all by surprise, then all of a sudden everyone is questioning their own unshakeable relationship.”  

Anno Domino marks the first time Ayckbourn has both directed and starred in one of his own plays, even providing the sound effects too. Performed by Ayckbourn and Stoney, with a final mix by Paul Steer, it requires the duo to play four characters each, with an age range of 18 to mid-70s: Ayckbourn adjusting the pitch of his voice to denote Ben, Sam, Craig and Raz; Stoney, likewise, for Ella, Milly, Martha and Cinny.

This SJT audio recording is the first occasion they have acted together since Ayckbourn’s stage exit left in William Gibson’s two-hander Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964.

Multi-tasking: Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney: are playing four characters each in Anno Domino

Ayckbourn subsequently has pursued a prolific, glittering writing and directing career, all the way to Olivier Award and Tony Award success and a knighthood; Stoney continued to act, appearing in many Ayckbourn world premieres. Her last full season as an actress was at the SJT in 1985, when she appeared in the world premiere of Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind. 

Now they renew their performing partnership, enjoying “just mucking about in our sitting room,” as Ayckbourn put it.

Here Charles Hutchinson puts questions to writer, director, sound-effects foley artist and performer in lockdown, Alan Ayckbourn

What prompted you to respond to such dark times with a “lighter” piece?

“It was written long before this virus decided to rear its ugly head! Actually, before the SJT new play Truth Will Out. But the latter was an altogether darker piece and was concerned with another type of virus, a virulent computer virus, though, which brings the country to a standstill. A type of doomsday scenario piece and perhaps not too cheering in these darker days.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre poster for this season’s postponed world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 83rd play, Truth Will Out

“Still, I nearly predicted it correctly – I just got the wrong virus. Anno Domino, though, is altogether lighter and more optimistic. (Though, knowing me, it still has its dark corners!)  

You are well accustomed to the discipline of working in isolation, but has it been in any way different under the present circumstances?

“No, the past couple of months has been no different to any other year, really. Though the past few days, I have suddenly felt the difference as this was the week when I was scheduled to start for this season’s AA revival, Just Between Ourselves, which I had not directed since I premiered it back in the ’70s in our first home at The Library Theatre. I was really looking forward to revisiting that.” 

There’s ring rusty and then there’s you returning to performing after 56 years! How’s the “muscle memory” after all those years?! 

“Well, I’ve been writing and directing throughout the intervening years. When I’m writing, I tend to say everything out loud, in character; when directing, I tend to say everything silently, under my breath but, of course, NEVER out loud! Most off-putting that would be for the actors, poor things.”  

Heather Stoney and Alan Ayckbourn in William Gibson’s American two-hander Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964. “We were both totally unsuitable,” recalls Ayckbourn

What do you recall of your last stage appearance in 1964, again with Heather and again in a two-hander?

“It was a production of an American two-hander by William Gibson, in which we were both totally unsuitable. I played, whilst still in my twenties, a middle-aged businessman from Omaha, Nebraska, originally played by Henry Fonda. Heather did her version of Anne Bancroft’s performance as a young Jewish dancer from the Bronx. Hallo and goodnight Rotherham, Yorkshire!” 

What are the plus points of an audio recording, as opposed to a stage performance? What possibilities does it open up?

“Interestingly, audio and in-the-round stage performance are very similar. People always say with radio plays, that they enjoy them ‘because they ask you to use your imagination’. People say similar things when watching plays in-the-round. The only difference is that audio has no pictures!”

Any thoughts on what may now happen to Truth Will Out?

“I do hope it won’t get lost or forgotten. The SJT have agreed that this was merely a postponement. Shame to lose it as it’s a lot of fun. Watch this space, as they say.”

Lastly, how would you interpret the instruction to Stay Alert?

“Keep your eyes peeled, your head down and look both ways before sneezing!”

Truth Won’t Out, but a new lockdown Ayckbourn play will, and he’s acting in it

Alan Ayckbourn and his wife Heather Stoney in their Scarborough garden. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

WHEN the Coronavirus pandemic meant Truth Will Out would not be out this summer in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn responded by unlocking a new play in lockdown, Anno Domino.

And not only has he written it, but he is performing in the audio recording too, marking his return to acting, 58 years after his last appearance on a professional stage.

What’s more, the 81-year-old Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright has teamed up with his wife, actress Heather Stoney, his co-star in that 1964 production, to record the new show, his 84th play.

Heather Stoney and Alan Ayckbourn in his last professional stage appearance in Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964

The world premiere of Anno Domino will be available for free exclusively on the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s website, sjt.uk.com, from noon on Monday, May 25 to noon on June 25. 

Ayckbourn had been due to direct the world premiere of Truth Will Out, from August 20 to October 3, alongside his revival of his 1976 garage-and-garden dark comedy of four birthdays, Just Between Ourselves, in an SJT summer season completed by artistic director Paul Robinson’s production of The Ladykillers.

However, after the SJT’s summer was scuppered by the Corona crisis, former radio producer Ayckbourn and Robinson hatched a plan to create a new play that Ayckbourn and Stoney could record and present online: “just mucking about in our sitting room,” as Ayckbourn put it.

Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney: Re-united in a production for the first time in 56 years. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

Hey presto, Anno Domino, Ayckbourn’s audio account of the break-up of a long-established marriage and the domino effect that has on family and friends.

“The inspiration for Anno Domino came from the idea that all relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand!” says Ayckbourn. “And it only takes one couple to break up abruptly to take us all by surprise, then all of a sudden everyone is questioning their own unshakeable relationship.”  

Anno Domino marks the first time Ayckbourn has both directed and starred in one of his own plays – and even done the sound effects too. Performed by Ayckbourn and Stoney, with a final mix by Paul Steer, it requires the duo to  play four characters each, with an age range of 18 to mid-70s. This Stephen Joseph Theatre audio recording is the first occasion they have acted together since Ayckbourn’s stage exit left in William Gibson’s two-hander Two For The Seesaw at the Rotherham Civic Theatre in 1964.

“We can’t wait for our audiences to hear Anno Domino,” says Stephen Joseph Theatre artistic director Paul Robinson. “It’s one of Alan’s ‘lighter’ plays, a hopeful and rather joyous piece”

Ayckbourn subsequently pursued a prolific, glittering writing and directing career, while Stoney continued to act, appearing in many Ayckbourn world premieres. Her last full season as an actress was at the SJT in 1985, when she appeared in the world premiere of Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind. 

Robinson enthuses: “We can’t wait for our audiences to hear Anno Domino. We were all hugely disappointed to have to suspend our summer season. We were so looking forward to seeing the brilliant Just Between Ourselves – ‘the one with the car on stage’ – and the world premiere of Alan’s up-to-the-minute satire, Truth Will Out.

“Anno Domino is one of Alan’s ‘lighter’ plays, a hopeful and rather joyous piece, which will provide perfect entertainment in these troubled times. This is a hugely exciting and very contemporary response to the current situation and shows yet again how Alan has always moved with the times.”

“All relationships ultimately, however resilient they appear to be, are built on sand,” says Alan Ayckbourn . How apt for a play written in Scarborough.

The now mothballed Truth Will Out was written by Ayckbourn in late-2019 as a satire on family, relationships, politics and the state of the nation.

“Everyone has secrets,” says the tantalising synopsis in the SJT summer-season brochure. “Certainly, former shop steward George, his right-wing MP daughter Janet, investigative journalist Peggy, and senior civil servant Sefton, do.

“All it’s going to take is one tech-savvy teenager with a mind of his own and time on his hands to bring their worlds tumbling down – and maybe everyone else’s along with them. A storm is brewing.”

The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s artwork for this summer’s now-postponed world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Truth Will Out

When that storm will now break cannot be forecast. Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website states: “It is not known what the future holds for Truth Will Out…”, but the truth will out on its path forward in due course.

Ayckbourn’s 84th play will be a satire on family, relationships, politics and the state of the nation at Scarborough’s SJT

Alan Ayckbourn: 84th full-length play Truth Will Out will be premiered this summer at the SJT. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

THE truth is out. Alan Ayckbourn’s 84th full-length play will be premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, this summer.

Truth Will Out, Ayckbourn’s up-to-the-minute satire on family, relationships, politics and the state of the nation, will run on various dates in the SJT programme between August 20 and October 3.

Written and directed by the former SJT artistic director, it follows hot on the heels of Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday play, Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, in 2019.

“Everyone has secrets,” entices the new play’s synopsis. “Certainly, former shop steward George, his right-wing MP daughter Janet, investigative journalist Peggy, and senior civil servant Sefton, do.

“And all it’s going to take is one tech-savvy teenager with a mind of his own and time on his hands to bring their worlds tumbling down – and maybe everyone else’s along with them. A storm is brewing…”

Jemma Churchill and Naomi Petersen in Alan Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday play, Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, at the SJT in September 2019. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

As is customary in the SJT summer season, Ayckbourn also will direct an Ayckbourn revival, this time his 20th play, the very dark Just Between Ourselves, premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on January 28 1976, followed by its London premiere at the Queen’s Theatre on April 20 1977.

Ayckbourn calls it one of his “winter” plays, written in the winter months, like Ten Times Table and Joking Apart, wherein he attributed their darkness to being penned at this time of year.

Booked into the SJT diary for performances on various dates from June 18 to October 3, Just Between Ourselves dissects man’s inadvertent inhumanity to woman.

Dennis thinks he is a master at DIY and a perfect husband. In reality, he is neither of those things. When he decides to sell his car, Neil turns up as a potential buyer, wanting it for his wife Pam’s birthday.

The two couples become unlikely friends, aided and abetted by Dennis’s meddling live-in mother, Marjorie. A collision course is inevitable in “the one with the car”, set in a garage and a garden over four successive birthdays.

Northern Broadsides head from Halifax to Scarborough with Quality Street in May

SJT artistic director Paul Robinson will direct The Ladykillers, Graham Linehan’s spin on the 1955 Ealing comedy motion picture screenplay by William Rose, by special arrangement with StudioCanal and Fiery Angel, London.

This in-house production, playing on various dates between July 9 and August 15, will re-tell the story of the sweetest of sweet little old ladies, alone at home but for a parrot with a mystery illness. Both of them are at the mercy of a ruthless gang of criminal misfits, who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want. Surely there can only be one possible outcome?

Linehan’s writing credits include Father Ted, Black Books, The IT Crowd, Count Arthur Strong and Motherland. Now comes The Ladykillers, to be directed by Robinson with the stylish madcap humour that he brought to The 39 Steps in 2018.

Meanwhile, the SJT has confirmed South Yorkshireman Nick Lane will write the winter show for The Round for the fifth year in a row after his off-the-wall Christmas adaptations of Pinocchio, A Christmas Carol, Alice In Wonderland and Treasure Island.

Lane’s idiosyncratic take on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Snow Queen will be directed by Robinson, with music and lyrics once more by Simon Slater, for a run from December 3 to 30. 

Katie Arnstein in Sexy Lamp: playing the SJT on May 26

The SJT’s own productions will be complemented by a busy season of visiting shows, such as The Canary And The Crow on May 7 and 8, Middle Child’s grime and hip hop-inspired gig theatre show about the journey of a working-class black child accepted into a prestigious grammar school.

In Where There’s Muck There’s Bras, on May 7, North Yorkshire stand-up poet Kate Fox offers a comical and thought-provoking insight into “the real Northern Powerhouse: Northern Women – the sung and the unsung”.

On May 9, Roald Dahl And The Imagination Seekers presents a thrilling story told through performance, games and creative play that explores such extraordinary Dahl tales as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, The BFG and The Twits.

Quality Street, new artistic director Laurie Sansom’s directorial debut for Halifax company Northern Broadsides, will be on tour at the SJT from May 12 to 16. This Broadsides production is a rare revival of Peter Pan author JM Barrie’s delicious farce, a play so well known in its day that it gave its name to the ever-popular British chocolates, made in Halifax since 1936.

Key date for Alistair McGowan: piano and comedy on May 21 at SJT

Alistair McGowan: The Piano Show on May 21 combines the satirical Evesham comedian’s impressionist skills with his new-found prowess on the piano.

In It’s Miss Hope Springs, on May 23, self-confessed “blonde bombsite” Ty Jeffries plays the piano and sings mind-bogglingly catchy numbers from her all-original self-penned repertoire.

Scarborough’s Elvis tribute act, Tony Skingle, presents ElvisThe ’68 Comeback on May 24. Two nights later, Sexy Lamp asks: “Have you ever been treated like an inanimate object?” in Katie Arnstein’s show that combines comedy, original songs and storytelling to “shed a bright light on how ridiculous the industry can be and why Katie is refusing to stay in the dark”.

Sexy Lamp is pitched “somewhere between the comedy of Victoria Wood, the comfort of going for a drink with your best mate, and the high drama of Hamlet (although it is nothing like Hamlet”.

Hope springs eternal : It’s Miss Hope Springs plays SJT on May 23

Anglo-Japanese theatre company A Thousand Cranes visit Scarborough with The Great Race! on May 29 and 30. This thrilling story of how the Eastern Zodiac calendar was created is billed as “the perfect show for children in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics”.

Forged Line Dance Company’s Treasure, on June 3, will be a fearless and physical dance performance that explores “our innate human fascination with our seas and coastlines”.

In Chores on June 20, two brothers must hurry to clean their room before their mum comes back. What could possibly go wrong in a circus-comedy for the whole family, all the way from Australia?

Great Yorkshire Fringe favourites Morgan & West serve up Unbelievable Science on September 19, when they combine captivating chemistry, phenomenal physics and bonkers biology in a fun-for-all-the-family science extravaganza.

Mischievous magical science double act Morgan & West in Unbelievable Science on September 19

Tickets for all shows are priced from £10 and will go on general sale from Friday, March 13, preceded by priority booking for the theatre’s membership scheme, The Circle, from March 6, on 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com.