Damsels In Distress: History

The Damsels In Distress trilogy (comprising of GamePlan, FlatSpin & RolePlay) was Alan Ayckbourn’s first major triumph of the 21st century and, ironically, led to one of his biggest disappointments.

The origins of the project lay in Scarborough with Alan Ayckbourn deciding to return the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, to its repertory roots, whilst tackling the financial pressures facing the theatre at the same time. His solution was to write two plays, GamePlan and FlatSpin, which shared the same set and the same cast (it would develop into a trilogy only once these two plays had gone into performance). The Stephen Joseph Theatre for much of its first 40 years had predominantly been a repertory company, but the move to its new home in 1996 had largely ended the repertory company system (with the exception of the 10x10 season in 1998). Alan believed repertory was an important aspect of the theatre’s heritage and had many advantages for the theatre, the company and the audience.

Alan did not intentionally set out to make any thematic links between the two plays (which became three plays) other than they feature a female protagonist in an extraordinary situation, but they deal with many familiar Ayckbourn themes: lack of communication, relationships, the failure of technology and the death of love among others. Unusually, neither play resembles what the playwright originally planned as he ditched his original ideas for both these plays when he came to write them and both took on different plots and ideas to those he had initially imagined. Although labelled as a trilogy, the plays are connected only thematically and by the set and company.

The company of seven - dubbed “the magnificent seven” by The Guardian critic Michael Billington - mixed long-term Ayckbourn collaborators Jacqueline King, Bob Austin and Bill Champion with more recent additions Saskia Butler and Alison Pargeter alongside two completely new faces Tim Faraday and Beth Tuckey. These seven actors would prove to be a vital component in the impact and success of the plays, validating Alan’s decision to return to repertory.

The first play,
GamePlan, was premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in May 2001 and was extremely successful with both audiences and critics, a number of the latter having recently suggested Alan’s playwriting days had come to an end with the failure of Virtual Reality. However, GamePlan proved that not only was Alan on good writing form but was able to deal with very topical and contemporary issues in a way that he had arguably failed to achieve in Virtual Reality. The play was not without some detractors who worried about its portrayal of prostitution and underage sex, but equally Alan was applauded for dealing with pertinent issues, such as the potential dangers of the internet.

FlatSpin was unveiled a month and a half later and was equally successful, although the play is generally regarded as the weakest of the Damsels In Distress plays. The play is far more straight-forward than GamePlan and is, in effect, a Hitchcock inspired comedy-thriller. However, the response was good and Alan and his acting company were clearly enjoying the experience.

Inspired by the company, Alan wrote a third
Damsels In Distress play during rehearsals for FlatSpin and it marks one of the rare times when Alan wrote a play with a specific company in mind (the only Ayckbourn plays that fall into this category are Intimate Exchanges and Private Fears In Public Places). He wrote RolePlay and then announced to the company in rehearsals for FlatSpin what he had done and whether they would be interested. The company obviously said yes and the schedule was altered to include RolePlay at the end of the summer season (which included literally stopping the presses to incorporate the schedule changes into the forthcoming summer brochure as it had been sent to print that day!). This play was an undoubted triumph and won some of the best critical praise Alan had received in recent years. All three plays went on tour before RolePlay returned to Scarborough for more performances.

The massive success of the plays and the company inevitably led to discussion of the trilogy being staged in London. Initial conversations with producers seem to have largely been centred on which of the plays should be taken there with Alan adamant all three had to go to London as he had originally intended them, preferably with the original company. With the production budgeted at £250,000 to go into the West End, it was obviously not an easy decision to make with such stipulations, but the point was if they weren't presented as intended with the company which had won such acclaim, what was the point of taking them into the West End at all? Eventually, five producers including Michael Codron and Andrew Lloyd-Webber agreed to stage the trilogy in the Duchess Theatre.

The plays again opened to excellent reviews and the company - particularly newcomer Alison Pargeter - received very good notices. However, things were not quite progressing as planned. Despite their reception, the plays were soon haemorrhaging money with losses of more than £60,000 in the first four weeks alone. No matter what steps were taken, they appeared to have little impact on box office. With the plays not reaching a weekly break even point at any point, a decision was taken to alter the performance schedule to bring
RolePlay, the best received and performing play, to prominence little more than a month after the plays had opened.

The producers took the decision to restrict the performances of
FlatSpin and GamePlan to just Saturdays with RolePlay playing the rest of the week. Alan's return to repertory theatre was reduced to just one day a week. Unfortunately, this decision was taken without consulting Alan, as he was on holiday in France and largely out of touch. Needless to say, when he was informed, via a cast member, he was badly upset. Alan had always argued the plays should all be performed together or not at all and it did not help that it had been argued in initial discussions with the producers that RolePlay was the strongest play and should have been produced alone. The eventual decision to stage RolePlay alone, to all intents and purposes, may not have been planned, but one can imagine it felt like a conspiracy to both Alan and the company.

In a lecture at the Apollo Theatre on 23 October 2010 - shortly after the scheduling decision had been made - Alan expressed his dissatisfaction with what had happened to
Damsels In Distress and the current state of the West End to a question raised by the critic Michael Billington. This was reported the next day that Alan was boycotting the West End. Although the statement was taken out of context, its intent was broadly correct. Between 2003 and autumn 2007, Alan did not allow any productions of his work to be produced in the commercial West End. The only plays to visit London during this period were tours from the Stephen Joseph Theatre to fringe theatres such as the Orange Tree, Richmond. Throughout his career, Alan had expressed disquiet with the West End and this incident brought matters to a head with Alan noting he could not see himself returning to London in the foreseeable future, except to the National Theatre if he were asked. The trilogy closed on 11 January 2003 with the RolePlay decision having a devastating result: while the decision had little impact on the box office, its long-term cost to a professional relationship was huge.

In the heat of the moment and with such a furore, much of the blame for the play's failure seemed to be pointed at Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Alan's regular producer Michael Codron, but in the aftermath Alan made it clear he did not believe they were at fault. He did feel very strongly that much of the blame could be pointed at his main liaison with Lloyd-Webber's Really Useful Group, a person who Alan had felt had never supported the trilogy. The fall-out was still immense though and although Alan would remain friends with his long-term West End producer Michael Codron, it did end their professional relationship. Together they had brought Alan's plays to the West End with great success since 1972, but
Damsels In Distress marked their final production together before Michael Codron retired in 2013.

It would be five years before an Ayckbourn play was staged in the West End again, notably by an entirely different producer Bill Kenwright.
Absurd Person Singular was directed by Alan Strachan at the Garrick Theatre with great success and led to subsequent revivals including Alan's own revival of Woman In Mind at the Vaudeville Theatre in 2009. However, given the experiences with Damsels In Distress, Alan has made it clear he will not allow his new work to transfer to the West End and it is notable that since 2002, Alan has seen several new plays bypass the West End completely to open in New York after their premieres in Scarborough.

The irony with regards to
Damsels In Distress was that its success in Scarborough meant that for the first time, the entire Stephen Joseph Theatre company transferred to the West End and Alan lost his home repertory company. Yet due to the short run of Damsels In Distress in London, Alan has pointed out he might have been better to keep his company together in Scarborough for new projects.

Since then, the plays proved immediately popular with both professional and amateur companies and all three plays have been published by both Faber and Samuel French with Faber publishing a digital edition of the trilogy in 2014.

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

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