Standing Room Only: History

Standing Room Only is Alan Ayckbourn’s fourth play and was premiered at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961; the last play he would premiere at this venue for four years until 1965 and the world premiere production of Relatively Speaking.

Standing Room Only was his first play to use a futuristic setting - London in the year 2010 (or 1997 depending on the version of the script) - and was motivated by contemporary concerns about over-population. It is set in a future where gridlock has brought the UK to a standstill years earlier and nothing has moved on the roads since. An apparently totalitarian government has implemented draconian measures to control the population and the repercussions of overpopulation. Despite this, the play is essentially a gentle comedy about a family surviving despite the odds.
Behind The Scenes: Alternative Futures
The Ayckbourn Archive, held at the University of York, holds more versions of Standing Room Only than practically any other Ayckbourn play. It is unique in having surviving copies of the various different manuscripts relating to the play as it progressed from its world premiere production at the Library Theatre, 1963, through various drafts for the London producer Peter Bridge to Alan Ayckbourn's own revival of the play in 1963 and a final 'definitive' manuscript. Although the plots remain similar and retain much of the dialogue, there are substantive differences between the texts including additional characters, altered names, a different time setting for the play and - with regard to the London scripts - increasingly ambitious and extravagant effects.
It is, with the exception of Dad’s Tale, the only time that Alan accepted a suggestion for a plot from someone else; Stephen Joseph in this case. Stephen - Alan's mentor and the Artistic Director of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough - wanted a comedy about overpopulation, arguably with a strong political message, set on Venus. Alan had misgivings about this and set it on Shaftesbury Avenue instead (in Paul Allen's biography of Alan Ayckbourn, the playwright also notes it may have been 'some commercial gene in me') and ditched the political angle - Alan remains to this day a resolutely apolitical writer. It was, as he noted, the final time he wrote from an idea by someone other than himself.

Although not as overtly science fiction as Stephen's idea of setting the play on Venus, the play is definitely Ayckbourn's first definable 'genre' play and reflected his youthful interest in the golden age novels of the great science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. As a young man, Alan Ayckbourn was a voracious speculative fiction reader and fond of the allegorical stories which influenced his later playwriting, as well as having fond memories of some of the classic 'genre' movies of the era

The play was premiered in Scarborough's Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre on 13 July, 1961, and was the final Ayckbourn play to be premiered at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre until
Meet My Father (Relatively Speaking) in 1965. The play was apparently the most successful production of the season and led to the unusual step of extra performances being added at the end of the summer season. Directed by Stephen Joseph, it also featured Alan Ayckbourn in the role of the mysterious stranger Nemo (presumably a nod to Jules Verne's famous creation from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and whose name means 'no-one'.

Although Alan was happy with the original script, it was re-written probably more times than any other Ayckbourn playtext - and the playwright admits much to the play's detriment - largely due to the demands of a subsequent proposed but unproduced West End production. The reviews were generally good, not least
The Stage newspaper which challenged a producer to take the play to the West End. What was not obvious at the time was The Stage accepted submitted reviews and that the review was written by an uncredited Joan Macalpine, then stage manager at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre!
Behind The Scenes: Peggy & Alan
In Paul Allen's biography, Alan Ayckbourn: Grinning At The Edge, it notes Standing Room Only was the play which began Alan's long association with his literary agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay. Lacking an agent at the time (interest in his work was handled by the Library Theatre's secretary Ken Boden), the producer Peter Bridge introduced Alan to Peggy soon after he optioned Standing Room Only for the West End. Despite having only written four plays, none of which had gone into the West End, Peggy took Alan on as a client. She would remain his agent until her death in 1991.
The producer Peter Bridge bought the rights to Standing Room Only circa September 1961 (according to a contemporary report from Plays & Players magazine) with the intention of producing it in the West End in the autumn of the same year; this later being pushed back into 1963. This news was carried in the Daily Telegraph, The Stage and Plays And Players - largely due to the fact Peter Bridge was making a name for himself as a producer of new plays and high profile revivals in the West End; interestingly The Stage noted nine months earlier, in August 1960, the play "may soon be presented in the West End" without offering any evidence for this. However, this was not to be Alan’s first West End triumph: a tortured production and rewriting process over the course of at least a year - which had Alan redrafting the play to suit the latest star Peter Bridge was trying to court for the play - also left Alan wary about the West End for years to come and the play was never produced in London. Bridge would go on to produce Alan's first West End success though with Relatively Speaking in 1967.

Also unsuccessful was a proposed television version which was mentioned in the Victoria Theatre’s programme for the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's
Mr Whatnot in 1963, which read: “the play is to be presented by ABC Television in their Armchair Theatre series next spring.”
Behind The Scenes: Speculative Fictions
Standing Room Only marks Alan Ayckbourn's first foray into speculative fiction; something which becomes increasingly common in his writing from the late 1980s onwards starting with Henceforward… (1987). Intriguingly, although Alan Ayckbourn would not return to this genre for more than 25 years, despite his relative inexperience as a playwright in 1961 his use of science / speculative fiction in Standing Room Only is remarkably close to how he utilises it later in his career as a metaphor for the present day. Standing Room Only does have some strong sci-fi tropes (dysfunctional future, totalitarian Government, gridlock across the country, sterilisation of the population amongst others), but it is essentially a play about family and moral values; the speculative elements - even at this stage of his career - are not allowed to overwhelm the human story of the play.
It was finally successfully revived at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke in April 1963. Alan again revised the script, discarding many of the proposed West End alterations and bringing it closer to the original production, and directed the production - the first time he would direct one of his own plays. He would later say that despite the negative London experience with the play, he was pleased with the revised version and his subsequent production of it. It also marked the final association with London as the brochure for May to June at the Victoria Theatre advertises it as 'Standing Room Only: Prior to its West End production, Alan Ayckbourn's hilarious traffic jam comedy.' This is the last reference to the proposed London production held in archive.

Intriguingly it was also staged for one night in London in 1966 by a group called Cygnet Productions - the earliest play written by Alan Ayckbourn to have had any form of production in London. Of the many variations of the script, the definitive version is considered to be the revised version which Alan used for the Victoria Theatre's revival in 1963.

Standing Room Only was originally produced in Scarborough under Alan Ayckbourn's writing pseudonym Roland Allen. However, when Alan revived it at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in April 1963, the author was given as Alan Ayckbourn. As a result of this, Standing Room Only is considered to be the first play to be written by Alan Ayckbourn under his real name.

Standing Room Only being withdrawn - along with most of Alan's early plays - during the late 1960s / early 1970s, correspondence held in the Victoria Theatre's Archive at The University of Staffordshire indicates there was a significant amount of interest in the play - presumably with the intuition of producing it. Presumably the reason this was never acted upon - nor the script released for publication - was Alan's success with Relatively Speaking in the West End in 1967, which marked a fresh start for the playwright.

Although the play has not been staged as a full production since 1966, extracts have been performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre at various Ayckbourn-related events under the guidance of his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd. During 2019,
Dick & Lottie theatre company was given permission for an exclusive single, public rehearsed reading of the play presented by Simon Murgatroyd to mark the company's 15th anniversary, Alan Ayckbourn's 80th birthday and the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut. This took place at The Square Chapel, Halifax, on 4 July 2019 using the 1963 Victoria Theatre script and will likely be the final time the play is performed in its entirety.

Standing Room Only has not been published and is not available for production. A variety of different versions of the play are held in the Ayckbourn Archive in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at The University Of York and the British Library also holds the original produced script.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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The Standing Room Only section of this website is dedicated to Dick & Lottie theatre company & Simon Murgatroyd.