Dad's Tale: History

Alan Ayckbourn is a passionate advocate of encouraging young people to visit the theatre and his ‘family plays’ form a substantial and significant portion of his play-writing canon.

It is generally accepted that to all intents and purposes Alan began writing plays with a young audience in mind in 1988 with
Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays. In reality, Alan's first play for children was written in 1960 and his experiences of this and a second family play in 1962 led Alan to declare he was not able to write plays for children and he would not attempt to write a full-length family play for another 26 years.
Behind The Scenes: Family Plays vs Children's Plays?
In Alan Ayckbourn's full-length play canon there are no plays which are considered 'children's plays' only 'family plays.' When Alan began consistently writing plays for young people with Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays in 1988, he felt it important not to label them 'children's plays' as he felt they were no more this than his other plays were 'adult' plays. However, he did acknowledge they were different hence the label of 'family plays'. These plays weren't not just written for young people and Alan intends and hopes that although pitched at a younger audience, there is much that will appeal to all generations.
That being said,
Dad's Tale and Christmas V Mastermind have never officially been classed as 'family plays'. This is primarily because the 'family plays' are a collection of plays which were written within a concentrated period of time (1988 - 2004) with the intention of being 'family' plays and which are all available to produce. The two early plays are, arguably, written primarily for children and given they are neither published nor available to produce, there is little point in classing them as part of the 'family plays'.
The first of these two unsuccessful excursions into plays for children was Dad’s Tale, which was Alan’s third play and is unusual in that it owes its origins and structure to several different people. It is practically the only time Alan was writing a play to order that largely incorporated other people’s ideas and needs; all this can be clearly seen in the resulting piece.

Alan’s first two plays,
The Square Cat and Love After All, had been popular successes for Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, and for his third play, the Artistic Director Stephen Joseph asked Alan to collaborate with the company’s writer-in-residence, David Campton, to create a Christmas play aimed predominantly at children. This was perhaps an unusual suggestion in itself as Alan and David’s writing styles and interests were totally divergent. David Campton had already begun an adaptation of Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers and Stephen suggested this was a good starting point. Alan read the play but this became the sole extent of the collaboration as, discovering he was not a natural collaborator, he was left to write the piece alone. The only remnant of The Borrowers in the play is the Tinies, little people who steal things throughout the sparse plot.

The second unusual decision to affect the play was this was to be a joint production between Studio Theatre Ltd and the British Dance Drama Theatre. The company had performed daily at the Library Theatre prior to the evening's main performance from 11 July - 6 August that summer and Stephen had been impressed with the company's work. As a result, he had suggested the two companies combine forces for a Christmas play. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it seems doubtful Stephen fully thought out all the practicalities of such a decision.

The first major difficulty was the lack of budget, which meant the two companies could not rehearse together. As a result, the Studio Theatre company rehearsed their scenes in Scarborough and British Dance Drama Theatre, under the direction of Gerard Bagley, rehearsed in Birmingham. The two companies were only brought together for the dress rehearsal. Obviously not an ideal way to mount a production!
Behind The Scenes: What about Ernie?
There is considered to be a 26 year gap between 'family plays' with Christmas V Mastermind (1962) and Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays (1988). Yet between these, these is Ernie's Incredible Illucinations (1969), easily the most successful play for young people he has ever written (and possibly the most staged Ayckbourn play ever written). However, it is not considered a 'family play'. This is because it was written specifically for young people to perform as well as being a short one act play (and thus not part of the full-length play canon).
The co-production also meant dance had to be substantially incorporated into the script; which apparently took Alan by surprise as Stephen Joseph only told him about the ballet scenes after he had accepted the commission. Alan had no experience of dance and certainly not of writing scenes for a ballet. His solution to this hurdle was by having separate dance sections which illustrated the dreams of the characters. In essence the dance scenes and the drama scenes were totally separate and the dancing could just be dropped into the play when the British Dance Drama Theatre arrived in Scarborough. Although Alan had no experience as a choreographer, he gave the dance company detailed notes of what he wanted and how and when they should interact with the Scarborough company

The acting company included Stanley Page making his debut at the Library Theatre; the Australian born actor would become a regular member of the Studio Theatre company and appear in the world premieres of a number of Alan Ayckbourn plays including
The Norman Conquests, Confusions, Bedroom Farce and Sisterly Feelings. Alan Ayckbourn was also in the company and played seven roles; apparently during one performance he heard a woman exclaim: “Oh no! Not him again”.

Dad’s Tale was directed by Clifford Williams - who would go onto a significant directing career with the Royal Shakespeare Company, who brought the two companies together for the dress rehearsals at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. There is nothing to indicate there were any major problems with the integration of the companies nor the dance with the drama - Alan's extensive notes to British Dance Drama Theatre had obviously been an asset.
Behind The Scenes: Breaking The Fourth Wall
Dad's Tale marked the first time Alan broke the 'fourth wall' (if it's possible to have a fourth wall in theatre-in-the-round) with the lead character Martin speaking directly to the audience. Alan has used this device several times - most notably in Invisible Friends and Miss Yesterday - but only within his 'family plays'.
The play opened on 19 December 1960 at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, although its success as a family play is very hard to judge as, according to Alan, very few children attended the play. This was not necessarily a reflection on the play, but certainly a reflection on the company's inexperience of staging family plays. Dad's Tale was scheduled for the school holidays, depriving it of the large potential school party audience and it also had very little marketing. As a result it ended up with particularly small audiences in both Scarborough and Newcastle-under-Lyme's Municipal Hall, which it toured to in January 1961. The latter was part of a tour including other venues at Southampton, Hemel Hempstead, and Ealing, but it is not known whether Dad's Tale was actually produced at these venues; given it's initial lack of success and a lack of any evidence to suggest otherwise, it seems likely the play was quietly withdrawn from the tour schedule.

Until 2024, it we believed the play was never produced again but it transpired there was a final production of the play. During January 1962, it was performed in-the-round in Hull's Church Institute and several other venues in the area by The Company of the Way. It was never produced again after this and has never published. The play has also long since been withdrawn and is not available to produce.

Although no-one would ever argue that
Dad’s Tale is a milestone in Alan’s playwriting career, several observers have noted there is one innovation in the plot which gives a clear hint of Alan’s burgeoning talent and his desire to break the mould. In one scene, Martin and his Auntie tell the story of how the neighbours have responded to Dad stealing their Christmas hamper. Although they are ostensibly telling the same story, their interpretations are radically different from each other (see Other Quotes for Michael Billington's thoughts on this).

"This combination of narrative and ballet sounds like a recipe for disaster. But although the show never got an audience, it does have a blend of free-flowing imagination and robust comedy. It is the kind of play that only someone deeply in love with the theatre could have written…. But what is interesting is how, even at this early stage, Ayckbourn experiments with different ways of telling it [the story]. Long before David Halliwell began to explore the possibilities of multi-viewpoint drama, Ayckbourn shows us a single incident from several points of view."
Michael Billington

For a children’s play - or indeed for any play of this period - the idea of breaking the narrative structure to present alternate viewpoints is quite a radical idea. Of course, alternate scenes will become a common feature of Alan’s later work in plays such as
Sisterly Feelings and Intimate Exchanges.

Alan Ayckbourn wrote
Dad’s Tale under the pseudonym of Roland Allen and it is now considered to be the final play to be credited to that name. Although his next play, Standing Room Only, was originally credited to Roland Allen, when it was later revived the play was - and has since been - attributed to Alan Ayckbourn.

Dad's Tale has never been published and is not available for production - understandably given its lack of success; it is among the playwright's early plays which have been withdrawn as he believes it reflects a period when he was still learning the craft of playwriting. Original copies of the manuscript are held in the Ayckbourn Archive in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University Of York, The Ayckbourn Collection at Scarborough Museums and Galleries and in the Lord Chamberlain's Collection in the British Library.

Dad's Tale was Alan's first taste of theatrical failure following the success of his first two plays, it is fortunate he did not stick to his guns that he could not write drama for young people given his notable successes in the genre from the late 1980s onwards.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.