Dick & Lottie and Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website
Alan Ayckbourn & Amateur Theatreby Simon Murgatroyd
In February 2016, Alan Ayckbourn’s official Website announced its first patronage with the amateur company Dick & Lottie.
The Huddersfield-based company was founded in 2004 and is dedicated to producing the works of Alan Ayckbourn. During its first 12 years, it has produced 25 different Ayckbourn plays in 30 productions.
Besides supporting a company which has shown considerable commitment and dedication to Alan Ayckbourn's plays, the patronage also marks the importance of amateur theatre to Stephen Joseph’s most influential protege, Alan Ayckbourn, and how amateur theatre was a key part of Alan’s early professional career.
When Stephen Joseph founded the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the UK in Scarborough in 1955, the first person he met in Scarborough was Ken Boden. Ken was an insurance agent as well as a leading figure in Scarborough Theatre Guild and would prove key to helping found the theatre.
During Stephen’s tenure as Artistic Director from 1955 until 1965, the Library Theatre relied on Scarborough’s amateur theatricals as volunteers for front of house and backstage work, largely brought together by Ken Boden.
More than that though, Stephen genuinely believed amateur and professionals could and should work together in the theatre.
"Many Scarborough people are proud that theatre in the round virtually started its career here. From the start the venture had the support of local amateur groups. This extended beyond helping to set up and dismantle the theatre. Front of house help was recruited from volunteers, and prop-hunting, costume-finding, and the distribution of publicity material were all aided by voluntary help, under the supervision of Kenneth Boden. Besides helping us he has, as secretary of the local branch of the British Drama League, organised an amateur theatre in the round festival at Scarborough which looks like becoming an important annual event in the North of England."
This event was the UK's first theatre-in-the-round festival and it ran between 1956 until 1990.
During the first eight years of the event, Stephen Joseph was the adjudicator and after a decade’s hiatus from 1968, the event returned with Alan Ayckbourn as adjudicator at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round from 1978.
The loyalty of the amateur community inspired by Stephen Joseph also essentially enabled the Library Theatre to survive until the present day as in 1965, the venue was closed with no intention of it ever re-opening.
Fortunately, Ken Boden persuaded the now terminally ill Stephen Joseph to re-open the venue in 1966 for an amateur season. Then in 1967 - with little money but much enthusiasm from the amateur community and the support of people who admired Stephen such as Alan Ayckbourn and Alfred Bradley - the company was relaunched professionally and survives to this day, now in its third home the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
That amateur theatre was a vital part of Stephen Joseph’s philosophy can also be seen in the career of his most famous protege, the playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, who joined the Library Theatre in 1957.
During the formative years of his professional career, Alan wrote and directed for amateur companies before the explosion of fame led to him becoming one of the most successful British playwrights of the 20th century.
Part of Alan’s enduring success has always been his popularity with amateur companies and the way this community has so enthusiastically adopted his plays. It is something which is crucial to his success over the years.
His links to the amateur community though go back much further than people realise and the first verifiable amateur performance of an Ayckbourn play took place in 1961; six years before he went into the West End and just two years following his professional writing debut, The Square Cat.
It is hardly a surprise that the amateur community might turn to Alan following the success of his first two plays in 1959; one can imagine the local amateur companies queuing up to see if this exciting young writer would work with them. Obviously head of that queue were Ken and Margaret Boden with Scarborough Theatre Guild, for whom Alan would specifically write at least four plays.
On 4 October 1961, Scarborough Theatre Guild performed the one act play Love Undertaken at St Mary’s Parish House, Scarborough.
In all likelihood, this was not the first amateur production either as there’s strong evidence of amateurs performing his work in February that same year and possibly even late 1960. Love Undertaken though is significant as it is the earliest Ayckbourn production to receive a license for performance from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to which historically all plays had to be submitted for approval until 1968.
Love Undertaken was a one-act romantic comedy set in an undertaker’s office (the lead character is introduced rising from a coffin, where he has been hiding). There is no record of the success of Love Undertaken, but the following March, Scarborough Theatre Guild presented a double bill of more one act plays by the author, Follow The Lover and Double Hitch. The former is a comedy about an older couple who each believe the other is having an affair with someone younger. Enter two young detectives hired separately to investigate the alleged infidelities by each spouse, who naturally fulfil the prior suspicions of the couple.
Alan’s close ties with Scarborough Theatre Guild apparent here as he took on the role of the young detective opposite Ken Boden, which would later lead the playwright to declare any actor should be wary of performing with children, animals and Ken Boden!
Double Hitch was also a comedy in which two honey-mooning couples find themselves double-booked into the same decrepit holiday house and their fractious attempts to resolve this. There is evidence to suggest this was the very first Ayckbourn play to be performed by amateurs early in 1961 or possibly late 1960. Double Hitch would also have an extended life as it was performed at least twice more in drama festivals including the in-the-round festival which Stephen Joseph set up in 1960 in Scarborough.
The final play for amateurs (that is known of) was discovered in a Scarborough loft in 2007 but was probably written as early as 1958 before being offered for performance in the early 1960s.
The Party Game is a character study set at a house party, which stands in stark contrast to anything else Alan was writing in this period. Notably Margaret Boden, who was a frequent director for Scarborough Theatre Guild, turned the play down and it was never performed. This was eventually rectified in 2010 when the first public reading of the play was given by, appropriately, an amateur company when the participants of an Ayckbourn event read it at Scarborough’s Public Library, former home of the Library Theatre.
As far as is known, Alan did not write any more plays specifically for amateurs, although tantalisingly there are a couple of unproduced Ayckbourn plays in archive from this period, Relative Values and Mind Over Murder, which possibly might have been intended for amateur production.
By the end of the 1960s though there was no real need for Alan to write any more plays for the amateur market. The success of Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves in London led to an insatiable demand from repertory and amateur companies for Alan’s plays, the former demand also feeding the latter. The popularity of these and all that followed quickly saw Alan become one of the country’s most performed playwrights and his archive holds many letters from amateur companies often practically pleading to be allowed to stage the new Ayckbourn almost as soon as the play had professionally premiered!
Alan also ventured into directing amateur companies as well with two productions for Leeds Art Theatre, of which he was the president, at Leeds Civic Theatre. At the time, Alan was working as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC and he stepped in to help the amateur company.
His first production with the company was a revival in 1968 of Mr Whatnot; a huge technical challenge for an amateur company.
But perhaps most worthy of note is the lead role was played by a young actor named Bob Peck - who Alan joked he had found in a Leeds cellar and had been searching in cellars ever other such good actors.
So impressed was he by the actor, he employed him in a number of his BBC Radio productions and from which an extraordinary career on stage, television and film emerged - although he worked with both the National Theatre and RSC, to many he is probably most famous for the BBC’s Edge Of Darkness and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
The second production was Relatively Speaking in 1970 - which perhaps surprisingly marked the first time he ever directed one of his most famous plays; he would not direct it professionally until 1977 in Scarborough.
Alan Ayckbourn may have long since stopped writing or directing plays for amateur companies, but they have long since embraced the playwright and hundreds of amateur productions take place every year around the world.
That his plays have become so embraced by and are si popular with the amateur community is something of which he is proud of.
This relationship between Alan Ayckbourn and the amateur community is something Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website is celebrating through its patronage of Dick & Lottie.
This company is an excellent example of the ambitious standards so many amateur companies set themselves, providing productions of the highest standards and ably demonstrating Stephen Joseph’s belief that amateur theatre is something to be celebrated.
As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, a long-term admirer of Stephen Joseph and the founder of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website, I am delighted to be supporting Dick & Lottie and being part of their commitment to producing Alan Ayckbourn’s plays to the highest standard.
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and founder of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website, patron of Dick & Lottie. This article is copyright of Simon Murgatroyd, please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.
Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website is the patron of Dick & Lottie.