Dad's Tale: BackgroundAlan 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.
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 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!
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.
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 brought the two companies together for the dress rehearsals 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.
The play opened on 19 December 1960 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 never produced again after Newcastle-under-Lyme and it has never been 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."
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 at the University Of York and at the British Library.
Although 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.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.