Highlights of the new season at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre

Writer and SJT associate Torben Betts.Writer and SJT associate Torben Betts.
Writer and SJT associate Torben Betts.
Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre has plans for an exciting summer season. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

Really it should only ever have been a sleepy little theatre in a somewhat beleaguered English seaside town.

Thanks to two visionaries of British theatre, however, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough has a towering reputation. Stephen Joseph himself, a man of volcanic energy, established the theatre before his untimely passing handed control of the reins to a young writer who went on to become one of British theatre’s most celebrated writer-directors, Alan Ayckbourn.

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Ayckbourn’s fortunes, during what is now an extraordinary 55-year-long career as a playwright and director, have been inextricably linked to the theatre which bears his mentor’s name.

Gladly for Scarborough and for both Yorkshire and British theatre, Ayckbourn’s fortunes have been on a constant incline since his first major success, Relatively Speaking, in 1967.

Chris Monks took over from Ayckbourn when he decided it was time to step down as artistic director of the theatre in 2009. Despite a stroke in 2006, an event which contributed to Ayckbourn’s decision to step away from the running of the theatre, he has continued to write for the venue.

Now that Monks has announced his departure, the new man in charge of the little theatre with the big reputation is Paul Robinson.

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Currently artistic director of Theatre503, an award-winning new writing theatre in London, Robinson takes up his post in Scarborough this summer and comes with quite the reputation – a number of productions from his theatre have transferred into London’s West End and toured nationally. “I am delighted to be appointed artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre,” he says. “Over 60 years this magnificent venue has developed a company whose history, location and ethos combine to make it a unique and vital place. It is an organisation which simultaneously fosters a genuine notion of community and which is also a powerful regional voice, proudly situated in the vibrant town of Scarborough.”

Like Chris Monks before him, Robinson is aware of the long shadow cast by Ayckbourn and chose to immediately pay tribute to the man upon whose reputation the theatre has thrived over the past six decades.

“I am excited to extend the legacy of my hugely talented predecessors including Stephen Joseph himself, Chris Monks, and of course Sir Alan Ayckbourn, particularly in his approach to progressive new work and nurturing emerging talent. I am thrilled to be directing and curating a range of work at the SJT, and forging close ties with our audience. It will be a privilege to lead this company at a moment when it is bursting with such opportunity.”

It sounds like the little Yorkshire theatre that has such an important position in the county’s cultural life, is in good hands: Mathew Russell, the theatre’s chief executive who will be Robinson’s right-hand man, says he is delighted at the appointment.

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He says: “Paul offers us the perfect attributes for the role: experience in artistic leadership of a theatre committed to making new work and nurturing new talent, a proven track record as a director of high quality productions, often produced in partnership, and a firm commitment to reaching new audiences and participants in fresh and exciting ways.”

The appointment is timely, coinciding with the announcement of the theatre’s new season which this summer will include several world premieres including a new play from Alan Ayckbourn, a premiere from former SJT associate Torben Betts, and an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories written by Vicky Ireland.

Quite apart from being home to one of Britain’s greatest and most produced playwrights, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has always been set apart by its marching to a different beat than the other producing theatres we have in Yorkshire. When other theatres go dark in the summer sun – taking advantage of the summer months when people are less likely to sit in a hot theatre, to carry out maintenance – the SJT comes alive when the sun shines and people flock to the seaside.

The summer season kicks off on June 8 with The National Joke by Torben Betts, invited to be resident writer by Alan Ayckbourn early in his career. His play tells the story of an MP and three generations of women who gather to watch a total solar eclipse.

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The season continues with the world premiere of the adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling Just So Stories. The stage play, suitable for children, will be told with the help of puppets and runs from July 2 to August 27 and has been adapted from the Kiping book by the highly regarded Vicky Ireland. Other highlights include a new play from The Karaoke Theatre Company and in September there will be a revival of the Ayckbourn classic Henceforward which premiered in Scarborough in 1987 before transferring to London a year later where it starred Ian McKellen and Jane Asher, winning Ayckbourn one of many awards, this time the Evening Standard Best Comedy Award.

The season closes with an Ayckbourn premiere, a new work with a twist – unsurprisingly: we’ve become used the master stretching the medium.

Consuming Passions is a comedy written in two parts: Premonitions and Repercussions. The plays can be seen as stand alone pieces, each of which lasts 50 minutes, at lunchtimes from August 5 to September 8, or as a double bill in the evenings from September.

Full details www.sjt.uk.com