Taking Steps: BackgroundIt is a great irony of Alan Ayckbourn’s career that he has so often been labelled a farceur when he has written so few farces. True, his very earliest plays are farce, The Square Cat and Love After All, but these were plays (both now withdrawn) never seen by those critics who would go on to label him as a farceur. The label came as a result of the West End successes of Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests. Of these only How The Other Half Loves can be described as true farce. In fact, since Relatively Speaking, Alan considers he has only written two full-length plays which could be accurately considered farces. And Bedroom Farce is not one of them!
For the only other true full-length farce after How The Other Half Loves, the Ayckbourn observer has to go forward 10 years and 15 plays before reaching Taking Steps, a play which Alan declared was in the tradition of farce, was dedicated to the great farceur Ben Travers and in which he deliberately set out to write a play which met the conventions of the genre. Despite having begun his career writing farces, Alan has always argued that it is one of the hardest genres to write in and to do it well takes a great deal of experience.
“They are the most difficult plays to write because you are asking for a seemingly logical string of circumstances to lead to something totally illogical and unlikely without the audience for a moment looking back, and saying, “Oh no, wait a minute, this couldn’t happen.”…. The more wild the journey the more crafty and crafted the play has to be. I mean, this is no mistake, that most farce-writers are quite old dramatists, if not in years at least in experience.”
Taking Steps was a late addition to the 1979 summer schedule at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. Not advertised in the main brochure, it was announced to the public at the end of August. As usual for the time, no-one had any idea of what the play was going to be about as the promotional announcement made clear.
“A little earlier than usual comes Alan Ayckbourn’s “annual” play. This, his 23rd*, opens on Friday 28 September and plays for only four performances during this run before the professional company takes a month’s break. At the moment all we have is the title, but rest assured the script will arrive in time for rehearsals, so don’t miss this opportunity to be the first audience ever to see the new offering of this phenomenally popular and entertaining writer.”
This was the typical way of publicising Alan’s plays at this time and, generally speaking, the script was written at the last possible moment only to arrive on the day before or on rehearsals began. Rehearsals for Taking Steps were due to begin at the start of September, by which point the first four productions had practically sold-out. Alan had completed the majority of the play, but lacked an ending and none was forthcoming. The first week of rehearsals passed with no sign of a script. This was highly unusual for Alan and his biographer Paul Allen reveals the inspiration came when Alan decided to just sleep on the problem. The next morning, he hastily completed the script which was prepared for a first read-through.
A week late, the company assembled and read the play for the first time. The actor Robin Herford recalls the company “wept our way” through the reading. Well, all aside from one actor who declared he was not happy with his role of the builder Leslie Bainbridge. This highly unusual event led to a confrontation with Alan which saw the actor leave the rehearsal room and the company. A replacement in Jeffrey Robert was quickly found and rehearsals from that point proceeded smoothly.
Further details of the play were revealed in September when Alan announced his new play would be a farce.
“[This is] me in cheerful vein. I wrote it as a humble tribute to Ben Travers. I’m rather superstitious and produce my plays only in winter and spring. This time I decided to try a jolly autumn one for a change.”
Not only was Alan making a rare excursion into farce, but also writing a play specifically for the round. As later productions would demonstrate, this is a play which seriously suffers when taken into the proscenium arch as it develops an overlay technique the playwright first used in How The Other Half Loves (another play whose full potential is compromised in the proscenium).
“It [Taking Steps] is perhaps one of the archetypal ‘in the round’ plays because the floor is vitally important, and the floor, of course, in the round is like the backcloth is in the proscenium, everyone sees the floor and the joke is based around the floor.”
Taking Steps opened on 28 September 1979 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and there was an anxious wait to see how a play so different to Alan’s most recent creations would be received. The response was unexpected. The laughter was so loud it blew the theatre’s antiquated relay system and Alan recalls it being the first time he saw someone actually fall out of their seat laughing, lying "on the auditorium steps, kicking his feet.” The volume and amount of laughter came as a bit of a shock to the company too as Alan recalls when he came backstage at the interval.
"I find the cast sitting in the tiny green room in stunned silence. The applause is still rattling through the tannoy speaker on the wall. Finally it dies out. There is a pause. Then one of them says, “It’s a bit frightening this really, isn’t it?”"
Apparently the first night ran 17 minutes longer than it had in dress rehearsals due to the sheer volume of laughter. Alan’s first farce for 10 years was a hit. The play’s short first run over, it returned in repertory from 30 October to 12 January and Alan believes it was the most successful Scarborough run of any of his plays up to that point as well as being one of the Scarborough theatre’s biggest hits since it opened in 1955.
Taking Steps then went on a European tour of 11 countries before returning for a UK tour - the largest tour the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round had as yet staged. After a short break, it was then recast for the summer season at its home venue where it became the first play to run for 100 performances (although the Scarborough Evening News reported it with a memorable headline mistake: “Taking Steps Clocks Up 1,000 Shows”). It was undoubtedly a huge commercial success and equally had received many critical plaudits. Alan had every reason to be pleased with the play, but he also felt reason to be worried.
It was almost inevitable Taking Steps would be snapped up for a West End transfer and Alan was wary about this, particularly in the immediate aftermath of its immediate success. Alan’s recent forays into the West End had not been the successes of the past and he was wary of overexposure and a backlash. He had taken on the role of director for his West End productions for the first time in 1977 with Ten Times Table, followed by Joking Apart in 1978 (prior to this he had also co-directed Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre in 1977). Ten Times Table has done respectably well but Joking Apart had actually lost money; neither being the hoped for successes in London. One of the problems was Alan’s plays were being measured against the phenomenal success of Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests; but just four years on and Alan was not the same playwright he had been then and his plays had taken a darker and more serious turn which had not necessarily gone down well with West End audiences.
He was also beginning to have serious concerns about the West End. He was convinced that rarely if ever were his original Scarborough actors improved on in the West End and the London productions were loaded with stars who either deliberately or accidentally unbalanced what were always written as ensemble pieces. With the reception of Taking Steps in Scarborough fresh in his mind, he expressed disquiet to both his agent Margaret ‘Peggy’ Ramsay and his regular London producer Michael Codron about a transfer, wondering what the point was of transferring a play to London, which would almost inevitably be inferior to the original production.
Codron reassured Alan that the best interests of the play would always be served and despite Alan’s initial misgivings, a decision to take it into the West End was agreed. Interestingly the transfer would involve Michael Rudman and Dinsdale Landen, both of whom Alan had had earlier reservations about when discussing the transfer. Alan was not given the opportunity to direct the play, which Paul Allen suggests was the decision of Codron given the lack of success of his previous West End production Joking Apart. If true, it was a vote of no-confidence which backfired. Whatever the reason, Alan meanwhile went to direct Sisterly Feelings at the National Theatre, the run of which crossed over with that of Taking Steps.
Directing duties were given to Michael Rudman, then Director of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre and a well-respected director, although he had neither directed farce nor Ayckbourn plays before. Although Alan would converse in writing with Michael, he largely absented himself from the rehearsal process as previous experience has demonstrated that his own strong feelings about how his work should be directed might interfere with the actual director’s vision of the play.
When Alan did visit the rehearsals, it was not a happy experience. As had happened so frequently in the past with London productions of Alan’s plays, Rudman put a star turn into an ensemble piece with the actor Dinsdale Landen turning in a bravura and overwhelming performance as Roland Crabbe, becoming the de facto star. It emphasised the play had been misinterpreted, as Alan has frequently pointed out, if Taking Steps has a lead character (or a character who has a dramatic journey), it’s Tristram not Roland.
Alan’s fears about the play not being suitable for the proscenium were also confirmed. The play’s designer was Alan Tagg, who had just finished working with Alan on Sisterly Feelings (another difficult play to stage as Tagg had also had to deal with the vast Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre). Alan has a great deal of respect for Tagg, but felt even he had been bested by what was an impossible situation. Taking Steps was intended to be performed where the entire audience could see the entire layout of the stage-floor and appreciate the joke of the overlaid floors. In the proscenium arch, the overlapping set was just confusing and for the staircases - which had worked so elegantly and clearly in the round - Rudman had the company running on the spot by a banister. It might have been good for a cheap laugh, but the subtleties of the original were being steadily lost. Alan would later say the designer was forced to meet an impossible brief.
“When Michael Rudman did it in London, he tried to stage it - with the excellent Alan Tagg designing - in a more conventional way. The result, I have to say, was a terrible, unsatisfactory mess. It looked a bit like a furniture store.”
Alan had been faced with the same problem when the original production toured. His solution was neither graceful nor ideal, but at least it worked and stayed true to the play. For the tour, a false floor with an exceptionally steep rake was built onto the actual stage allowing the audience to appreciate how the play was "a farce with floors not doors" (see Staging). Ultimately, there is no avoiding the fact that Taking Steps was written specifically for the round and this does not seem to have been seriously taken into account in the desire to transfer it to the West End.
Taking Steps opened on 2 September 1980 at the Lyric Theatre with Alan in attendance; Paul Allen’s biography sums up the experience.
“On the London opening night of Taking Steps the Act 1 curtain arrived to almost complete silence, in contrast to the aching roar greeting it in Scarborough, and things were not much better at the end. Alan was aware of the sound of [his partner] Heather sobbing beside him. 'She was more upset than I was. I just went out into the night,' he says, but I suspect his upset was simply buried at once.”
The reviews were not deadly, but they ranged massively from poor to indifferent to good. Landen’s performance was praised, which must have made Alan wince as it gave the mistaken impression Roland was the star part. If anything, it was a middling response to the play which allowed it to run for nine months. It closed on 6 June 1991, achieving a longer run than the previous West End Ayckbourn production Joking Apart; although Codron's autobiography states Taking Steps did not recoup its production costs during its West End run, only turning a profit after it had completed a tour. To Alan’s mind the production was a colossal disappointment and he’d seen a successful show become so much less in London. His only comfort was that the play was running simultaneously in Scarborough with the polar opposite reaction.
“It’s very interesting: it’s the first time that a play of mine - Taking Steps - opened in London while it was still running in Scarborough. I’ve never done that before. It was like looking at two pictures. And you say: 'Well, I don’t care what they say down there and whether they think this or that. There’s a whole group of people in here who are having a marvellous time.' And in that sense one was perhaps able to survive the buffers of that experience better.”
Alan and Rudman would go on to have long and involved correspondence about the show, analysing what went wrong. That there were mistakes cannot be denied, arguably the wrong director with the wrong cast for a show that was not suitable for a typical West End proscenium arch theatre. But perhaps the biggest fault lay just in the different perceptions of the play. Alan and Rudman had differing opinions about how farces should be structured and work (although given the farce had conclusively worked very successfully in Scarborough, it seems a strange argument). Alan has always firmly stated that for farces to be successful they have to be rooted in the normal and ordinary for the audience to be willing take the trip into ever more improbable situations. He felt the Lyric production was a lost cause from the start as the characters had been made as extraordinary as possible from the word go.
“The productions that haven’t worked have been the ones where - and I’m afraid that’s what happened in the London production - you try to comment and indicate and make it comic. Of all my plays, this one needs the most serious playing.”
The combination of another less than happy West End experience and a successful run of Sisterly Feelings at the National Theatre led Alan to quietly re-evaluate his position in London. Between 1979 and 1986, not one Ayckbourn play transferred directly from Scarborough or had its London premiere in the West End. Any West End productions in that period were transfers from other London theatres, be it Season’s Greetings and Intimate Exchanges from Greenwich or A Chorus Of Disapproval from the National Theatre. It would be 1986 before Alan staged a London premiere of a play in the West End with Woman In Mind and he would never again let anyone but himself direct one of his new plays in the capital. Taking Steps undoubtedly marked a watershed for Alan and his relationship with London and he would never again be comfortable taking his writing into an environment which seemed to want the opposite of what he intended.
Despite all this, there was still much demand for the play and a UK tour began soon after the London run with much demand from regional repertory theatres. It was also a hit abroad as reported by The Stage in February 1983, when an article noted it was the most performed play in Germany in 1982 with 462 performances.
The play was also revived surprisingly quickly in Scarborough when Alan directed it again in 1990. The actor Michael Gambon played Roland in repertory with the title role in Othello alongside an impressive ensemble of Ken Stott, Adam Godley, Elizabeth Bell, Claire Skinner and Rupert Vansittart. Again the play was a huge success at Scarborough with Gambon apparently considering it the funniest play he had ever been in.
This was soon followed by the play's Broadway premiere when it was had a limited run at the Circle In The Square Theater from February to April 1991. Staged in the round and directed by the experienced Ayckbourn director Alan Strachan, the production was well received and undoubtedly did better service to the play than the West End production.
The play was published in 1981 in a hardback collection with Sisterly Feelings and was subsequently also published by Samuel French in an acting edition. It has not been adapted into any other media though, presumably due to the fact the central device of having all the floors on one level would work on neither television nor radio and to stage it ‘realistically’ would defeat the purpose and lose much of its humour. It has been a perennial favourite though in theatres and continues to be well-regarded.
In March 2010, Alan Ayckbourn revived Taking Steps at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Staged as intended in the round for the first time in London, the play received practically unanimous critical praise and was an enormous success for the Orange Tree; the author felt it was a vindication of the play and that the original West End experience was not the fault of the piece itself. The plaudits for the play led to an immediate rise in productions of plays both by professionals and amateurs. This was followed by another revival at the playwright's home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during the summer of 2017 with the playwright again directing the piece.
*Taking Steps is actually now considered Alan Ayckbourn's 24th full-length play. At the time of writing, the playwright did not list Jeeves amongst his full-length works, presumably because at this time it was his only musical.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.