Earlier this year on a fairly typically overcast day (remember them?) I sat in the auditorium at Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scaborough and saw that the theatre and its future is in very safe hands.
The theatre which has become known mainly as the home of Alan Ayckbourn was always going to struggle to come out from under his shadow when he finally decided to step down from the role of artistic director and take a well earned break a few years back.
The man who has been in charge for a couple of years now, Paul Robinson, is programming some brilliant, challenging work and really helping to make this theatre what it is going to become in the future. He’s doing this by looking ahead while paying respect to the Acykbourn legacy. The old master himself is still razor sharp. At the season launch one of the bright young things sharing the stage with him was asked about the development of a play, something which took over a year. Ayckbourn was asked about one of his plays, returning to the stage this year, how long did it take to write? “A couple of weeks,” came the answer, with the kind of comic timing you’re used to seeing from actors in his plays.
The classic which returns to the Scarborough stage this week, is Joking Apart. Ayckbourn wrote the play 40 years ago in response to a criticism by an audience member, complaining he never wrote stories about happily married couples. Joking Apart puts a happily married couple at its heart with the unhappy lives of their friends brought into focus. It is always a great joy when Ayckbourn brings back one of his classic works, allowing those who didn’t see some of the defining moments of his career first time around the joy of seeing the work which made him famous on stage.
The other great annual joy we have up on the Yorkshire coast is the regular new Ayckbourn play. This year the master’s world premiere is Better off Dead, a story of a grumpy old man, an author who has had considerable success in his career, who might not be as grumpy as he is first thought. Like all writers, Ayckbourn is of course in his own work, and a huge part of the fun of Better off Dead is trying to see the line between the man and the fiction. Sharing the stage with Ayckbourn and Robinson at the season launch was Christopher York. In his 20s, York has written what sounds like a seriously incisive piece of work that is as homegrown as it could possibly be. Build a Rocket was first presented as part of a play reading programme last year, it is a one-woman play written by a Scarborough-born playwright about a young woman living in Scarborough. It is this sort of story that will ensure the survival and relevance of this impressive venue.Hull’s Nick Lane returns with his version of Alice in Wonderland for the Christmas show this year. Although the town isn’t exactly known for being the place to be in winter, that the theatre is committed to providing quality shows all year round is another important part of Robinson’s tenure. A trip to Scarborough this summer simply should include a trip to the theatre. They are doing some special stuff by the coast.
Full details: www.sjt.uk.com