Suburban Strains: History

Suburban Strains, premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1980, was Alan Ayckbourn’s first full-length musical since his notorious West End flop Jeeves in 1975. It was the diametric opposite of Jeeves; a small-scale musical-play for Scarborough, rooted in character and plot. It was almost as if Alan was proving to himself he could write a successful musical-play.

Behind The Scenes: Revolving Plays

The world premiere production of Suburban Strains saw a double-revolve installed in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round's auditorium. This was later re-installed in 1984 for the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Award-winning play, A Chorus If Disapproval; it has never since been staged as originally envisaged in-the-round with the revolves.
The play was conceived as a result of Alan’s working relationship with the composer and musician, Paul Todd. They had collaborated successfully on the small-scale revue Men On Women On Men in 1978 and Alan suggested they work on a full-length musical-play. The process began with Paul composing a variety of different tunes - despite apparently being told next to nothing about the show! Alan apparently gave a plot outline to Paul along with an idea of what sort of music he was looking for. However, midway through writing the music for the first song, Alan contacted Paul Todd and told him to forget everything he had previously said as he had had a new idea and was starting from scratch! Following this restart, together they would create 15 songs for this musical-play.

From the start, Alan decided the play would be rooted in the book and have strong characters and plot. Even at this stage of his musical writing career, Alan’s belief that songs should be there for a purpose, driving the plot forward and having a real point, is obviously in force. It is unusual in Alan’s musicals to ever hear someone break into song for no apparent reason - everything must have a purpose.

Similarly the designer, John Hallé, knew next to nothing about the play other than the playwright's broadest intentions. As a result, when he came back to Alan with a solution to the play's proposed shifting in time by using a twin revolve, Alan told him that would be fine and he'd be able to write a piece to suit the set! As a result, a double revolve was installed into the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round auditorium. With an inner and outer revolve, both going in different directions, Alan was able to cleverly and - relatively - simply indicate whether the plot was moving forwards or backwards in time; the revolve was another first for the Scarborough theatre.

Behind The Scenes: Silence to Song

For the world premiere of Suburban Strains, the role of Caroline was played by Lavinia Bertram. During the musical, Caroline never leaves the stage and is a rarity in Ayckbourn works in being a 'star' role. Ironically, Lavinia had most recently played Kitty in Taking Steps, a role in which much silence is demanded! The part of Caroline could not be more different.
It quickly became obvious Alan was expecting much of his cast; he needed his usual high calibre of actor to deal with the book but also required they be able to cope with the musical demands. Suburban Strains is also unusual as it has a star role in the shape of the play’s protagonist, Caroline, and the plot is presented from her perspective. For this role, Lavinia Bertram was cast and received high acclaim for her performance.

Despite the many challenges presented, the play opened in Scarborough and was well-received by audiences. The critics were more divided, but were more impressed than has generally been reported. Although the revolves caused the odd problem, Alan’s main concern was where to put the live band within a round space, something he felt he never satisfactorily solved as the band was placed in one of the auditorium's back corners amidst the audience.

Alan and Paul Todd had not considered
Suburban Strains as particularly suitable for London and after the lack of success with Taking Steps in the capital, Alan’s usual producer Michael Codron was not willing to take it on. However, Alan was invited by Thelma Holt, Artistic Director of The Round House in London, to bring the musical to that space. Alan agreed and Suburban Strains was premiered in London in February 1981 (the second production in less than six months to visit the venue following Season's Greetings in October 1980). Unfortunately, the theatre was vast and dwarfed the production. Located as it was away from the West End, the production failed to attract an audience and the critics were not very receptive either.

Prior to opening in London though, it had a test run in Scarborough with an altered book. The production was again well-received at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and proved to be a success.
Suburban Strains was published in 1982 by Samuel French and although not one of his most popular or well-known plays, it has been produced by both professionals and amateurs a number of times since.

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