Alan Ayckbourn: The Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent

In 1962, Stephen Joseph - founder of Theatre at the Library Theatre, Scarborough - set up the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. The UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round venue. One of the founding members was Alan Ayckbourn who left Scarborough with the Studio Theatre Ltd company as writer, director and actor for the new venue.

The Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent

While Alan Ayckbourn's long-standing association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, is well-known, less well known is his association with the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent.

Stephen Joseph had long searched for a permanent home for theatre-in-the-round. He founded Theatre in the Round at the the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955 but the seasonal nature of the venue (initially only summer seasons) meant Scarborough is regarded as home to the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company. It was not until 1962 that Stephen was able to found the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round venue.

Having toured to Newcastle-under-Lyme previously - the company undertook winter tours primarily to towns without municipal theatres in the hope it might arouse interest in a permanent home for the company - an opportunity arose to open a permanent theatre-in-the-round in a converted cinema in the Potteries, Stoke-on-Trent.

Stephen took the decision to move his company, Studio Theatre Ltd, from Scarborough in 1962 to found his new venture, the Victoria Theatre. Many of the company joined the journey including Alan Ayckbourn who worked as director, playwright and actor during his tenure at the Victoria Theatre.

Peter Cheeseman was appointed Artistic Director and, for the first two years, he and Alan were regarded as the senior members of the company. Alan wrote two plays for the company,
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot - the latter of which became his first play to transfer to the West End. It also marked the point where Alan stopped writing under the pseudonym of Roland Allen and his first production where he used his real name was a revival of Standing Room Only at the Victoria, which had originally opened in Scarborough in 1961.

Alan directed nine productions during his two years with the company and acted in 20 productions; this included the last time he appeared in one of his own plays with
Christmas V Mastermind. The West End interest in Mr Whatnot - and presumed success - was a key reason in Alan leaving the company in 1964. However Mr Whatnot was a disaster in the West End and Alan almost quit playwriting and theatre altogether, taking a job as a radio drama producer at the BBC.

At the same time, the Victoria Theatre was forging its own identity under Peter Cheeseman with his documentary-drama plays such as
The Jolly Potters and The Knotty; it should be noted that whilst Alan and Peter had much respect for each other, their views on theatre were quite divergent. However, in their own ways, they became two of the most influential and long-running regional Artistic Directors in the UK.

In 1967, the future of the Victoria became a cause for concern when Stephen Joseph - unhappy with the direction the Victoria was going in - tried to oust Peter Cheeseman from the theatre; he even asked Alan to take Peter's place, an offer which Alan declined. The local outcry was immediate and intense after Stephen fired Peter and barred him from the theatre. In a bitter and prolonged fight, which nearly saw the theatre close, Peter was eventually re-instated and the theatre was handed over to a new theatre trust in 1967. In October of that same year, Stephen died from terminal cancer which had been diagnosed the previous year.

The Victoria Theatre would go on to became a theatre of immense regional importance and, in 1986, moved to a purpose-built new home in Newcastle-under-Lyme; regarded as the first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round in Europe. The New Vic continues to thrive to this day. Alan himself still has ties with theatre as the Stephen Joseph Theatre and New Vic regularly tour productions to each other.

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