Family Circles: Background

Family Circles is a badly neglected part of the Alan Ayckbourn play canon. First produced in 1970, it has never made a significant impact with any of its productions and for an Ayckbourn play of this period it is little known and infrequently produced.

Yet it is an interesting play standing as it does between the more plot-device driven
Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves and the emergence of Alan’s tragi-comic voice in Time And Time Again. Ayckbourn himself has noted Family Circles acts as a bridge between these plays, taking the technical challenges of the previous plays to an extreme whilst also introducing some of the character and darker elements that typify Ayckbourn’s first character piece Time And Time Again.

Family Circles is also defined by its convoluted production history which includes two aborted attempts to take it to the West End, three major revisions and four changes of title. The history of the piece has been largely ignored - and largely inaccurately reported previously - but the 27 year journey between first production and first publication is worth exploring.

The summer of 1969 saw Alan Ayckbourn premiere and direct one of his most enduring successes,
How The Other Half Loves at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. With the venue increasingly dependent on Alan’s plays to shore up the season’s takings, there was much interest in what he would produce next. In December 1969, Alan reported to the board of the Scarborough Theatre Trust that his next play for the Library Theatre would be a musical - which is interesting in itself as this pre-dates his first actual musical, Jeeves, by five years. In the coming months, this idea reverted to a play which as of 2 April 1970 was known as The Story So Far…. In itself this is notable as there is no other Ayckbourn play of this period where the naming of a play can be so accurately judged. Alan’s agent Margaret Ramsay (better known as Peggy) sent a contract to Ken Boden, manager of the Library Theatre, regarding Alan’s new play, cited in the covering letter as ‘Alan Ayckbourn - untitled play’. The accompanying contract, again dated 2 April, had the title The Story So Far... showing an obviously last minute decision regarding the play title.

Posters advertising
The Story So Far… were distributed during May and carried no description of the play save: “The latest new comedy from the author of Relatively Speaking and last year’s very successful How The Other Half Loves.” This was not unusual as Alan was still at the point of his career where he was writing his plays to the latest possible deadline, typified by a press release which declared that: “Finished only three days before rehearsals were due to start, a team of typists worked day and night to have the scripts ready in time.” Advance publicity of this nature was common for the world premiere of Alan's plays until 1985. Amusingly - given the play's eventual overly complicated structure - the original press release also states the play is “far more straightforward’” than Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves and that the play centres around Edward and Emma Gray, the surname of the parents not being included in the original programme.

The Story So Far... opened at the Library Theatre on 20 August, 1970, and ran for two-and-a-half-weeks in repertory. Unfortunately, the original manuscript of the play (which is apparently substantially different to the Family Circles version of the script) has not survived and only Alan Ayckbourn's programme note offers an insight into the original production.

“I suppose the question this play poses is one that many married partners might have asked themselves at some stage or other - either idly or, in some cases, in deadly seriousness. What would have happened had I married someone else? What would have happened to me as a person? Would have I been very different had I married, say, a booming extrovert rather than the nervous hesitant creature with whom I share my breakfast table? And what might have happened to them? Are they as they are, solely as a result of being exposed to the hard core radiation of my own personality? Intrigued, I explored the possibility. Six individuals are all, at one time or another during this play, married or about to be married to each other. Who’s best suited to who? You can take your choice. These six, at any rate, finally find their own happy solution. But that’s only half the story so far….”

Were you to take the first paragraph out of context, it could practically be describing either of Alan’s plays concerning choice such as
Sisterly Feelings and Intimate Exchanges. Both plays incorporate actual choices as motivating factors demonstrating what happens when different choices are made by or for the characters (in Sisterly Feelings, all choices lead to the same destination; in Intimate Exchanges, each choice moves the characters’ lives in very different directions) and the decision-making is a vital aspect of these plays’ structures; whereas in Family Circles, it is the consequences of choice which is explored.

The play featured a notable cast which included Bob Peck (practically at the start of his professional stage acting career and in his first Ayckbourn play), Stephanie Turner, Elisabeth Sladen, Piers Rogers, Joe Dunlop, Ronald Herdman, Heather Stoney and Eve Shickle. In a letter to Peggy, The Library Theatre's manager Ken Boden said the play had “packed houses” and made £1032.0.6d at the box office. Thoughts now turned to a London production, but Alan was unsatisfied with the play and began the first of many revisions, noting some years later: “I think audiences were a bit mystified by the last scene as seen in its premiere production in Scarborough. This was totally different from the version you have now (
Family Circles).”

Peggy had already raised the presumption of interest from London producers on the back of the success of
Relatively Speaking and the early interest shown in How The Other Half Loves, which would open in London in July 1970. Peter Bridge had produced these two plays but in correspondence, Peggy was of the mind that he was not automatically the right choice for taking Family Circles into London. “Alan and I are going to tell Peter Bridge that he cannot have first refusal on this new play. He is welcome to see it and make an offer for it, but we want other West End managers to have an opportunity of seeing it and to make an offer as well.”

Peggy hoped, ironically it would turn out, offering the play to other producers would result in a short turn-over between the Scarborough and London productions. There was obviously good will towards Peter Bridge as he initially looked set to produce the play; unfortunately, Bridge was beset both with financial problems (which had seen Alan forego his final week’s royalties from the London production of
Relatively Speaking) and ill-health. As a result of this, Alan was advised by Peggy’s lawyer Laurence Harbottle the play might be better co-produced with Eddie Kulukundis, who had produced the American production of How The Other Half Loves. It was suggested Kulukundis take on the role of executive producer with Peter Bridge receiving his usual producer billing. According to Paul Allen, author of Alan's biography Grinning At The Edge, Bridge ‘angrily refused the offer’ and was eased out of the production with Kulukundis taking on full responsibilities as producer. He would set about organising a short pre-West End tour before a transfer to London.

Alan, meanwhile, had revised the three-act play and re-titled it
Me Times Me Times Me, although it seems staging the play was far from easy as less than six weeks from its planned opening, Peggy told Alan that Kulukundis was having difficulty casting it - although she also made clear he intended the play to have an “immediate transfer” to London. However by August 1971, an announcement of the forthcoming production was carried in The Stage newspaper:

“Robin Midgley is to direct
Me Times Me Times Me a new plays [sic] presented by be presented [sic] at Leicester Phoenix on August 25, presented by Eddie Kulukundis for Knightsbridge Theatrical Productions Ltd, Anna Cropper, Cherith Mellor and Bridget Turner play three sisters, with Peter Blythe, John Normington and David Wood as their husbands and Ambrosine Philpotts and John Robinson as their parents. After four weeks in Leicester the production will be seen at the Edinburgh Lyceum and in the West End in October. The designer is Adrian Vaux.”

Me Times Me Times Me opened on 25 August and was scheduled to run until 18 September at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre. Even as it opened there was a significant change as the actress Anna Cropper had dropped out of the play for health reasons (an insert in the programme bluntly states: ”Due to the indisposition of Anna Cropper…”) and Heather Stoney, who had performed the part of Polly in Scarborough, was brought in as a last minute replacement.

The play then toured to Edinburgh for a week, but with additional changes. It was now entitled
Me Times Me and was no longer in three acts, but in two acts (a form which it kept through all subsequent revisions). Heather Stoney was credited in both flyers and the programme as playing the role of Polly. According to the original press reports, the play was scheduled to transfer from Edinburgh directly to London.

Instead, the play opened in Oxford. On 23 September, various regional newspapers reported
Me Times Me would be visiting the New Theatre, Oxford, for a week commencing 27 September to 2 October. The majority of articles noted the play was still destined to open in the West End in October. Come October, the play transferred - again - not to London but to the Theatre Royal, Bath, for the week 18 to 23 October. If a surviving review is anything to go by, this is also the point where the play’s future must have been in serious doubt as it noted it had “the most sparsely attended first-night of the current season.” The majority of reports and reviews of the Bath production still mention the play will transfer to London, but neither dates nor a venue are given. Unsurprisingly by this point, the play did not transfer to London, nor did the tour continue with the production ending in Bath on 23 October.

While Eddie Kulukundis would later attribute the play’s failure primarily to the lack of star names in the cast, it appears it was not so clear cut. In correspondence with the play’s director Robin Midgley after the event, Peggy quite clearly felt the play had had a few teething problems. “I personally saw the show in Bath, and I thought it much much inferior to Leicester - everyone was straining to be funny, and it had become farce rather than comedy. I came home deeply depressed…. [Michael] Codron saw that performance, and thought the production and everything to do with it - including the poor actors - a non-starter for the West End. A lot of the managers saw it too, and didn’t offer theatres - it’s the luck of the game.”

It also transpired that despite the play’s advertised intent of an immediate London transfer, there had been no prior deal with any London theatre and that Kulukundis hoped an offer would be made by a London theatre management or a theatre would become available during the run of the try-out tour; although this was not unusual at the time such was the demand for venues in the West End.

This was not the end of the play though. Present in the Bath audience was the producer Michael Codron who had begun the process of bringing Alan’s latest play,
Time And Time Again, to the London stage. He apparently notified Alan and Peggy that should the Me Times Me tour not go to the West End, then he would like the opportunity to try his hand at a transfer.

This optioning of the play for a new tour must have taken place relatively quickly after the original tour ended as Alan Ayckbourn reported to the Scarborough Theatre Trust board, in February 1972, that rehearsals were under way for
Me Times Me with Celia Johnson and Roland Culver contracted for a production “to be presented in the West End of London next April.” Codron decided to mount an entirely new production and Alan extensively revised the play again - a process which Peggy believed had begun almost as soon as the play’s first tour ended in Bath. Basil Coleman came in to direct with a predominantly new cast of Celia Johnson, Roland Culver, Bridget Armstrong, Ann Penfold, Pamela Fairbrother (who would be replaced by Cherith Mellor for the run), John Nettleton, Peter Blythe and David Firth. Unfortunately, no copies of either version of Me Times Me survive to this day to give an impression of just how extensive the changes to the scripts were.

The new production opened at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham on 13 March 1972 before transferring to the Theatre Royal, Brighton, on 20 March 1972 for a three week run. Soon afterwards Michael Codron was interviewed in The Daily Telegraph in an article which noted the play was due to transfer to the West End in April - this given extra credence by the presence of Celia Johnson in the cast, who is unlikely to have agreed to appear in a production that was not bound for London. In the interview Codron explained why he was attempting to take the play to the West End so quickly after the failure of the first tour. “I liked it very well. It is a brilliant conception but it is difficult to say why it did not reach the West End.”

He may have had more insight into that decision when the plug was pulled on the tour in Brighton. The announcement of its closure recalled by Alan Ayckbourn:

“Michael Codron summoned the company into her [Celia Johnson’s] dressing room on the last week of the play’s tour to announce with due solemnity that the play was not to come in. We all left quietly and with suitable reverence for a dead play. Michael remained behind to console Celia who sat staring into her mirror, murmuring, “It’s not right. It’s not right”. Michael, assuming his philosophical expression, muttered solicitously “No, I know. But that’s theatre isn’t it? Like life, it can sometimes be cruel….” “No,” Celia interrupted, “I meant the play’s not right….”

Alan would later say he was actually pleased the play had never reached London: “I’d hate to see it on Shaftesbury Avenue because I think people would expect of it something it hasn’t got.” Alan subsequently withdrew the play from production but patently wasn’t quite willing to lay it to rest as in correspondence, Peggy noted that “Alan has three versions of
Me Times Me Times Me, and he has told me that he intends to look at it and make a definitive version.” Further correspondence from the period includes reference to Family Circles, indicating that Alan had not only revised the play again but come up with its final title.

On a positive note, the play essentially began a long and successful relationship with Michael Codron, who would produce the vast majority of Alan Ayckbourn's plays in the West End between 1972 and 2002.

The definitive version of the play finally saw the light of day in 1978, ironically in London - or at least on the London fringe. Sam Walters, a friend of Alan and artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, had seen one of the
Me Times Me productions and expressed a desire to stage it himself. Alan agreed to the production and the new version of the play was produced to great success at the Orange Tree Theatre. This marked the first time a professional production of an Ayckbourn play had been produced in-the-round in London. The significance of the play, at least to Alan, made clear in his programme note:

“Chronologically in my writing the play was written between
How The Other Half Loves and Time And Time Again. Stylistically it does something to bridge the otherwise rather abrupt change that occurs between the technical farcicalities of the former and the mellower tones of the latter. The reason for this sudden switch might be found in the last act of Family Circles which must be termed complicated.”

Alan thought Sam had made “a very good job of it” but was still hesitant about the future of the play and did not immediately release it for production or publication. The play still had a hold on the playwright though and he decided to revive it himself at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1985. Sam Walters would revive it again in 1996 at the Orange Tree Theatre as part of the venue's 25th anniversary celebrations, which presumably finally led to the decision to release it for general production as Samuel French published the acting edition of the play in 1997 - 27 years after it was first produced.

As to whether Alan is happy with a play that has gone through so many changes, in 1996 he said: “I should have left it alone.”

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