Ten Times Table: Background

In 1976, the theatre company founded by Stephen Joseph in 1955 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."

The play, as chronicled in the programme note on the
Other Articles page, 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! Alan's notes held in archive suggest the play changed substantially from its original idea (see the Behind The Scenes and Archive pages for more details).

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.

The play was an enormous success in Scarborough and to mark the first night, the theatre expanded the action off the stage (something Alan would later do on a far larger scale with
House & Garden in 1999) 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 to cope with demand for the play, the play was extended by a week; this led to 18 sell-out performances, but which still make it one of the shortest runs of an Ayckbourn play to have been staged in the town.

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.

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. For an Ayckbourn play from the 1970s, it is also not staged as often as many of his other works from the period although it still receives fairly regular revivals, particularly by amateur companies.

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