The Square Cat: Articles

This section features articles about Alan Ayckbourn's play The Square Cat. Click on the link in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant article.

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, for the SJT Circular newsletter during 2016.

Making History

There are certain significant years in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre: for instance, the year the company was founded (1955), Stephen Joseph’s death and the re-launch of the company (1967), the move to the Stephen Joseph Theatre (1996).

One of the most significant years though has to be 1959 and with it a tale of two playwrights who would go on to have a phenomenal impact on British theatre during the 20th century and beyond.

On 3 January 1959, the Studio Theatre company finished the winter season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, which had been a great success; it must have been a source of pride to the company’s founder, Stephen Joseph, that the winter seasons - entirely reliant on home audiences rather than the tourists prevalent during the summer - had been so well-supported, paying back his faith in Scarborough and the believe theatre-in-the-round could and would be adopted by the local community.

Following this, a short tour was arranged featuring a repertory of plays drawn from the previous winter and summer season as well as a couple of new productions.

Most interesting of which was the debut play of a young playwright called Harold Pinter. The play,
The Birthday Party, had opened in the West End in 1958 and been a disaster closing after just eight performances.

Stephen Joseph knew of Pinter from his work at the Central School of Speech and Drama and he invited the aspiring playwright to come to Scarborough to direct the play himself; the only provisos being he had to draw the cast from the existing company and the production was to be in-the-round. Other than that, he had free rein.

The Birthday Party was performed in Birmingham and Leicester on the 1959 tour featuring a young actor called Alan Ayckbourn as Stanley, who has frequently noted how inspiring working with Pinter was. The only surviving image of this production is held in archive and features Alan as Stanley in the play’s infamous blindfold scene.

Reactions to the production were very positive and Pinter later said that the experience - marking his professional directing debut - had restored his faith in both the play and his own abilities as a writer. The rest, as they say is history, as Pinter went on to what we might term a modicum of success!

Back in the play itself though was the 19 year old Ayckbourn, who was already having doubts about his future as an actor. During the winter season, he had appeared in a play called
Ring Of Roses by David Campton and had not enjoyed the role nor the experience. He challenged Stephen Joseph why he wasn’t getting better roles.

Stephen, ever the provocateur, turned this on its head and replied that if Alan wanted better roles, he should write them himself. He challenged Alan to write his own play promising he would stage it if it was any good and that he should also write himself the main role; a clever suggestion as who was going to write themselves a poor part?

Alan and his fiancee, the actress Christine Roland, thus went off on the winter tour with the challenge ringing in Alan’s ears.

And at the same time he was working with the 28 year old Pinter who had written and directed a play which was undoubtedly exciting, pushing boundaries in theme and writing and completely unlike anything Alan nor any of the actors had experienced before.

It was an inspiration to the budding writer.

During the course of the tour, Alan and Christine begin writing a play for Stephen Joseph under the pseudonym Roland Allen.

It’s been postulated this was to distinguish between Alan’s acting and writing careers; but this is unlikely as it was common knowledge from the go that Alan’s plays were initially written under a pseudonym.

The real reason for the name was far simpler; the play -
The Square Cat - was a joint effort between Alan and Christine and the pseudonym reflected that (Christine’s maiden name and a variation on Alan’s christian name). This was no secret as practically every newspaper report on the couple noted how they were both writing their first play together.

Alan had already been trying his hand at writing plays - although none had been produced - and had a nascent gift for dialogue and ideas. Christine was apparently very good at creating structure and she provided the framework for the play, around which Alan would write the dialogue.

Thus
The Square Cat was born, now credited as Alan Ayckbourn’s first professionally produced play but actually co-written by Alan and - by then - his wife, who he had married after completing the play. The accompanying photo shows ‘Roland Allen’ with Alan and Christine together in a publicity photograph for The Square Cat.

Given the significance of the play in Alan and the Scarborough company’s history, it is interesting to note its production was not a sure fire certainty. Although
The Square Cat would prove to be enormously popular and the second most profitable play of the year, when Stephen Joseph told Scarborough Library’s Chief Librarian about the forthcoming summer season in mid-March, there was not a mention of The Square Cat; which probably hadn’t even been finished at that point.

It’s only when the posters for the season were printed - approximately a month before the season - that
The Square Cat is mentioned.

The play, starring Alan Ayckbourn in the duel role of pop-star Jerry Watts and his mild-mannered alter-ego Arthur Brummage, was a huge success; although it didn’t feature Christine who was by this point pregnant with their first child, Steven.

The play’s success led to it becoming the first play to run for two consecutive weeks at the Library Theatre when Stephen pulled a week of the far less well received
Frankenstein adaptation by David Campton. Immediately after the season ended, Stephen also commissioned Alan to write a second play which was premiered during the winter season later that year and was called Love After All.

All of which makes 1959 a remarkable year for the company. Here we have two playwrights who will go onto extraordinary success, staging their first plays with a little-known provincial theatre company.

Alongside this, there is little doubt that working with Pinter was a huge inspiration to Ayckbourn in both his efforts to write his first professional play, but also later as a fully-fledged playwright who has always credited Pinter’s influence on his dialogue.

And above all this, we have Stephen Joseph, an Artistic Director who saw the potential in both writers. He encouraged Pinter to keep on going after what must have been a traumatic experience in the West End and recognised a new talent in Alan Ayckbourn, encouraging him to write and immediately capitalising on the success of his first play.

Arguably, Stephen actions also unwittingly had huge long term consequences. By encouraging Alan as playwright and, later, director, he unknowingly laid the seeds for the company’s prolonged success and survival. Also, by nurturing Pinter and Ayckbourn, he played a vital part in the formative years of two of the most successful British playwriting talents of the second half of the 20th century.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.