Ten Times Table: History

In 1976, the theatre company founded by Stephen Joseph in 1955 at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, moved to a new home. The company, of which Alan Ayckbourn had become the Artistic Director in 1972, moved to the ground floor of the former Westwood County Modern School in Scarborough and became Theatre In The Round At Westwood, later renamed - as it is now better known - the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

The venue was opened on 26 October 1976 not with a new Ayckbourn play but with a revival of one of the few Ayckbourn plays not to have premiered in Scarborough,
Mr Whatnot. It would be another three months before Alan would premiere a new play at the theatre in January 1977. This was Ten Times Table and it drew its primary inspiration from the torturous committee process that Alan witnessed as he endeavoured to move the company from the Library Theatre to its new home. Given the play premiered in the same year as the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II taking the throne and the enormous amount of community events and celebrations which took place around the UK to mark it, there has often been speculation Alan was influenced by this. But the play was actually written in December 1976 and premiered months before the Silver Jubilee celebrations got into full-swing, so this is no more than coincidence, although there was apparently some inspiration from the organisation of Scarborough's Richard III festival during 1976.

Ten Times Table was announced to the media in early November 1976, soon after the new theatre had opened - although it was noted, Alan hadn't actually written the new play yet despite its premiere being little more than two months away. Alan noted the play title was derived from its cast of 10 and, in the Daily Telegraph, he was reported as saying the title was "even more appropriate in view of the fact that our new theatre used to be a school."
Behind The Scenes: Cruel Cut
At the time of writing Ten Times Table, Alan would dictate his script to his partner - now wife - Heather Stoney. She was due to play the character of Charlotte in Ten Times Table, but when he rewrote the play, he told her as he began dictating again that her character had been cut from the play!
The play, as chronicled in Articles section, did not arrive without some problems. It was the first play since Absurd Person Singular where Alan actually stopped writing, threw away half of what he had completed and began re-writing. Given that Alan was still in the habit of writing to the latest deadline possible, his decision to re-write the play meant he missed most of the Christmas celebrations in order to meet this deadline! Most interviews with the playwright suggest the re-write was to address the fact the play was conceived as multi-locational moving between the committee room and the homes of the various committee members with Alan deciding it was better to stick to a single location. However, the playwright's early notes indicate the changes may have been far more extensive with character's names and motivations being extensively altered.

Alan finished writing the play on the evening of Boxing Day - although the typing and proofing process would take it through to the 28 December. He sent a copy to his agent Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay on 29 December, who passed it onto Alan's frequent London producer Michael Codron, who optioned the play for the West End just prior to its opening night at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 18 January 1977.
Behind The Scenes: Off-Stage Action
Ten Times Table featured the first example of an Ayckbourn play beginning outside the performance space. First night patrons received a mock programme for the fictitious John Cockle Festival. Posters for the festival decorated the foyer and staff even wore John Cockle Festival t-shirts. This expansion of the play away from the stage would reach its ultimate conclusion in House & Garden (1999) when the fête featured in the play took over the Stephen Joseph Theatre's foyer following the production.
Alan's practise to write to the latest possible deadline during the first three decades of his career also had the side effect that he could frequently not give details of what the play would be about for publicity purposes (often required several months in advance of the production). In Ten Times Table's case, this led to it being advertised in the winter brochure with the following admission that no-one had a clue what it might concern: "No season at Scarborough would be complete nowadays without a new play from Alan Ayckbourn. Another one! How does he do it? Well, he hasn't yet - he's give us the title and the script will (we hope!) arrive in time for rehearsals after Christmas.'

Despite all this, the play was an enormous success in Scarborough and to mark the first night, the theatre expanded the action off the stage with commemorative John Cockle T-shirts and special Pendon Folk Festival programmes, written by Alan and the press office.

At the time, it was usual for the new Ayckbourn play to premiere for just a few performances at the end of the winter season before being revived for a longer run during the following summer season. The size of the cast for
Ten Times Table prevented a summer revival though and it was scheduled for just 13 performances during the winter season. However, in order to cope with demand for tickets, the play was extended by a week. This led to 18 sell-out performances, which still stands as one of the shortest runs of an Ayckbourn play to have been staged in Scarborough.
Behind The Scenes: Art Imitating Life
It has been argued that several characters in Ten Times Table were inspired by real people; Alan has both variously confirmed and denied this over the years. In Paul Allen's biography of the playwright - Grinning At The Edge - though, actor Robin Herford notes that Alan told him that his character, Councillor Donald Evans was based on Councillor Maurice Plows, a bank manager who had also been a member of Scarborough Theatre Trust for many years. Maurice was famous at the theatre's previous home, the Library Theatre, for leading a rebellion against Stephen Joseph's decision in 1958 to end the playing of the National Anthem after every performance; he would even resign from the board in protest before later rejoining. In 2017, Alan Ayckbourn publicly confirmed Maurice as the inspiration in the A Brief History Of Plays event at the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrating his 60 years with the company.
Part of the play's appeal in its original production arguably came from the assumption at the time that some of the characters had been lifted directly from life and the tortuous committee meetings Alan had had to endure. At least one of the characters was drawn from reality, largely based on a rather notorious member of Scarborough Theatre Trust; this confirmed by both the playwright in contemporary interviews and by the actor Robin Herford, who in Alan’s biography relates the tale of Alan telling him who the character was based on. Since then, Alan has largely denied the characters were based on real people and it is safe to assume that the majority of them were entirely fictional or amalgamations of people he has met and seen over the years.

Notably, just as the company had broadened its horizons by moving to a new and better-equipped home, so
Ten Times Table became the first of Alan's plays to really step outside the suburban home. It marks a point where Alan's plays begin to more frequently move into the world at large (or the ballroom of Pendon's Swan Hotel in this case) and he begins to explore wider ideas and themes. The play is also the first Ayckbourn play to feature three stage entrances; this being entirely due to the new auditorium, which had the now familiar Round design (later replicated in the company's current home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre) with its three stage entrances (vomitoriums) as opposed to the two found at the Library Theatre.

Alan began discussing the West End transfer with Michael Codron almost as soon as the play had closed in Scarborough. This would be a notable production for Alan as it would mark the first time Codron would agree to let Alan direct one of his own plays in the commercial West End. Alan had just finished directing
Bedroom Farce for the National Theatre, the success of which undoubtedly strengthened Alan's position that he was the best person to direct his own plays. He also agreed to alter Ten Times Table from a three act play into a two act play for the West End. As was to be expected, there was a star name in the shape of Paul Eddington but the company also featured members of the original Scarborough cast, Christopher Godwin and Diane Bull. Unfortunately, the company apparently did not gel well and Alan's first first-hand experience of star-casting in the West End would leave a bitter after-taste which he never really lost.
Behind The Scenes: Prime Inspiration
An inspiration not intended by Alan Ayckbourn but which would become part of the West End production transpired thanks to the actor Julia McKenzie. The playwright recalls that when Julia was looking for inspiration for her role of Helen, she turned to then Leader of the Conservative Party - later Prime Minister - Margaret Thatcher.
Although the play received mixed reviews, it did run for a year at the Globe Theatre, London, and was a financial success for Michael Codron before being replaced by Alan's next play Joking Apart. It also received a nomination for Comedy Of The Year in the annual Society Of West End Theatre Awards. The West End run was immediately followed by a 37 week tour produced by Bill Kenwright and marked the point at which Alan began to seriously question whether his plays should not be released straight to repertory theatres. At the time it was common practise to send West End plays immediately onto first-run tours in a bid to obviously cash in on the success of the London production - or to recoup costs. However, Alan had little say in the tours or any control over them and they frequently bore little resemblance to the West End production. Alan had frequently felt the tours did his plays little justice and merely delayed his preferred choice of them being released to repertory theatre as soon as possible.

In the case of
Ten Times Table, the post West End tour typified everything he feared about the tours with reports it was both under-funded and under-rehearsed. The final straw came when Alan discovered the play was to visit the Royal Opera House in his home-town of Scarborough in direct opposition to his own plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round! Needless to say, the playwright was not happy and this was the first and only time a tour of an Ayckbourn play has ever played in Scarborough. For Alan, the tours were also symptomatic of his wider problem of how his plays were treated in London.

Ten Times Table was published in 1977 by Chatto & Windus in the mass market hard-back Joking Apart And Other Plays. It was later published in an acting edition by Samuel French in 1981. Unusually for an Ayckbourn play of this period, it has not been adapted for either television or the radio.

In 2023, a little piece of history was unearthed when the Borthwick Institute for Archives discovered the original music for
The John Cockle Song used in the world premiere and West End premiere of the play. Unheard for 43 years, the song - with lyrics by Alan and music by Bob Eaton - is all that survives from the original production.

During the 1990s and 2000s,
Ten Times Table was one of the least revived Ayckbourn works from the 1970s. However, In recent years, it has been regularly revived by both professional and amateur companies; during 2019 / 2020, Bill Kenwright Ltd notably staged a major UK tour directed by Robin Herford.

The reason for this renewed popularity may just be the cyclical nature of Alan's popularity and having so many plays to choose from. But it would probably also be foolish to disregard the fact that its popularity seems to have coincided with another febrile period in British politics and that the mood of the play once again reflected the times.

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