Standing Room Only: Articles

This section contains on Standing Room Only by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to read the relevant article.

This is a transcription of a talk given by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, at The Square Chapel, Halifax, during 2019. It was an introduction to a rehearsed reading of the play by Dick & Lottie theatre company marking the plays' first public performance since 1966.

An Introduction to Standing Room Only

Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

Standing Room Only

Articles by Other Writers

Introduction to Standing Room Only (talk)
Good evening and welcome to The Square Chapel and this special evening with Dick & Lottie. I’m Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, as well as the creator, curator and writer of the playwright’s official website.

As I’m sure you’re all aware, 2019 is a rather special year: Alan Ayckbourn’s 80th birthday, the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut and the 15th anniversary of Dick & Lottie. All of which we’re here to celebrate this evening with a unique performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s fourth play,
Standing Room Only. It is being performed for the first time since 1966 and tomorrow it will go back into the archive and is unlikely to be performed again during our lifetimes.

Before the play begins, I’m going to briefly set the scene and talk about why I feel this play is such a significant part of Alan’s playwriting career.

Standing Room Only was written in 1961 and was a very rare instance of Alan writing a play to someone else’s suggestion. In this case, it was his most influential mentor, the British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph. He had been reading about over-population and asked Alan to write a play about the subject set in the year 2010, by which time the population on Earth had grown so large, we’d had to colonise Venus, which was now also on the verge of overpopulation. Alan thought this all a bit unlikely, so he moved the plot from Venus to Shaftesbury Avenue - arguably both inhospitable locations in our solar system. He then wrote a play about over-population, gridlock, road-rage and a dystopian Government lying to the populace. Obviously, none of this came true…

The play is, arguably, the first time Alan’s authentic voice as a writer can be heard. The concept may have come from Stephen Joseph, but the idea, plot and dialogue are completely Alan’s. We’ve moved away from the traditional farce of his first two plays to a satire about ordinary people in extraordinary situations - something which recurs an awful lot in Alan’s writing.

The play opened at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961 directed by Stephen Joseph with Alan in the cast - at the time, his focus was still on becoming an actor first and foremost. It was a tremendous success and extra performances were scheduled for the end of the season.

It also had a very good review in The Stage - and thereby hangs a tale. The Stage review directly led to the West End impresario Peter Bridge optioning the play for London - this was the first of Alan’s plays to be optioned for the West End.

Yet The Stage review was written by Joan Macalpine. Joan was not a regular critic for The Stage. In fact she wasn’t a critic at all. She was a stage manager. A stage manager for the Library Theatre, more specifically for
Standing Room Only. When Peter Bridge saw the headline, ‘who will drive this bus into Shaftesbury Avenue?’, he decided he would. Despite the fact the review was, to use today’s vernacular, ‘fake news’.

Bridge shopped the play around various big-ish names - which largely seem to be
Carry On Stars. Each time someone showed interest, Bridge asked Alan to alter the script accordingly to suit that actor. This eventually degenerated into Bridge suggesting someone and Alan just changing the character description to match, which can’t have been terribly convincing to those reading it. Sid James thought there should be more ‘rudes’ in the play, so, obviously, Bridge asked for more swearing from Alan.

The final version of the play introduced a new character called Ellie and there’s a strong case that it was written to accommodate interest by Hattie Jacques. But Alan says he can’t remember this. Or just chooses not to.

Despite all this effort, the show wasn’t produced in the West End and Alan decided he was not a fan of rewrites - he rarely rewrites anything once the first draft is complete. He also realised he wasn’t a great a fan of the West End, despite all the success he subsequently found there. It helps to explain why he’s such a committed regionalist.

Peter Bridge would eventually make good however and in 1965 optioned Alan’s play
Meet My Father. He told Alan ‘The title’s awfully provincial darling, can’t you change it?” Alan did and in 1967, Relatively Speaking opened in the West End - I think we can all agree that Alan had a modest success with that!

After all this, the much revised play did find a new home when Stephen Joseph founded the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in 1962. This was the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round venue - Scarborough was home to the UK’s first professional in-the-round company. Alan joined Stephen in founding the Victoria Theatre as actor, writer and director and during the first season,
Standing Room Only was revived. Significantly, this marked the first time Alan would direct one of his own plays. That Christmas he would also direct the first premiere of one of his works and subsequently would direct all but one of the world premieres of his plays.

The production featured Heather Stoney in the role of Ellie and, as anyone familiar with Alan’s life will know, Heather is now Lady Ayckbourn. It also became the first play to be attributed to Alan Ayckbourn. Previously all of Alan’s plays had been written under the pseudonym Roland Allen - this had been to distance the actor from the writer and also to acknowledge his first play had been a collaboration between himself, Alan, and his first wife Christine Roland.
Standing Room Only was the last play to be produced under the pseudonym, but when he revived it, it was credited to Alan Ayckbourn and is thus regarded as the first play to be credited to Ayckbourn.

Standing Room Only then became the first of Alan’s plays to be optioned for television when ITV picked it up for Armchair Theatre. Sadly, it was never made for reasons unknown - probably budget - and Alan would have to wait until 1969 for the first television adaptation of one of his plays.

The play’s final performance took place in 1966 at the British Council’s London Overseas Student Centre as a showcase for British drama and it again featured Heather Stoney.

And that was that. Alan withdrew most of his early work during the late 1960s with
Standing Room Only among them. Six of his first eight plays were withdrawn and have never been performed since nor have they been published nor made easily accessible. Until tonight. Tonight marks the first time any of these withdrawn plays have been performed in their entirety since 1967. So this really is a unique and special event.

And perhaps now you can appreciate why I feel
Standing Room Only is so significant. It’s the first credited Ayckbourn play and the first time we get a sense of the writer who will emerge over the decades to come. It’s the first play to be picked up for the West End - subsequently 39 of his plays have gone into the West End. It’s the first of his plays to be picked up for television - more than 25 of his plays have been adapted for the big or small screen since - and it marked the first time he would direct one of his own plays. Since then, he’s directed upwards of 150 productions of just his own work and has always considered himself more a director than a writer. So, all told, there’s a pretty strong case that Standing Room Only is an important work

And, if I may say so, I think it’s also pretty good play for a 22 year old’s fourth attempt. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Thank you for listening and now we move onto the interesting part of the evening. I give you Dick & Lottie and Alan Ayckbourn’s
Standing Room Only.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.