A Chorus Of Disapproval: Articles

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd was written for the West End revival of A Chorus Of Disapproval, directed by Trevor Nunn, during 2012. For other articles about the play, click on the link in the right hand column below.

Arranging The Chorus (2012)

"I liked the idea of writing about an amateur drama group as it contains a very good cross-section of every level of society and this group is doing The Beggar's Opera. This is usually filled with romanticised pimps, prostitutes and highwaymen but here we see their modern equivalent as property developers, dodgy builders and bored housewives.”
Alan Ayckbourn

Sexual politics, power struggles, shady dealings and even the odd play. Apparently just a normal day for the average amateur dramatic society. Or so it appeared to Alan Ayckbourn who, in 1984, was looking for a microcosm of society that would reflect the world at large for his latest play. Inspiration came from a friend recalling his own eye-opening experiences in an amateur drama society and the politics of all kinds which seemed to dominate the society far more than the tedious business of producing theatre.

At which point, Alan knew he had the perfect vehicle for his subject. So his favourite imaginary town, Pendon, acquired its own Amateur Light Operatic Society about to stage its latest production.

But the essential play within a play was originally something far different. For PALOS was to present Rudolf Friml’s
The Vagabond King rather than John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Although Alan admired the latter immensely, he was initially attracted by the former’s comedic possibilities.

“The Vagabond King is just a wondrous text. It's also one of the funniest Samuel French scripts in existence, because the songs have all got very, very painstakingly detailed choreographic stage directions.”

The thought of an amateur company attempting to cope with these improbable precision-engineering-like instructions suggested possibilities to the playwright. He was also enamoured by the idea of involving real amateurs. And not just a couple of extras, but a good third of the Scarborough auditorium.

“There were to be about 85 singers sitting in scattered seats completely incognito, who at various points would start to sing - thus causing the person next to them to look absolutely alarmed.”

Extraordinary as this seems, this idea progressed to the audition stage after an advert in the local press in March 1984 announced Alan was apparently ‘anxious to meet amateur singers’. By now - and, no doubt, to the theatre accountant’s relief - Alan was searching for just 20 talented amateurs for the show. However, rather than actors, Alan found only potential material for his play.

“I was sitting there watching this woman director, who I suppose became a prototype for Dafydd ap Llewellyn. She was absolutely brutal. A woman started singing and the director said almost at once, 'Don't go on. You have no voice. You're out of tune and it's a horrible noise'. As the singer ran out on the verge of tears, I said, 'That was a bit blunt,' and she said 'Well, you've got to tell 'em or they just come back again'.”

For those who did get past the draconian director, there was then the unexpected matter of ego. For as Alan later bemusedly noted, not for some of these people an unnamed part in the chorus, it was a lead role or nothing.

Fortuitously, Equity entered the picture and prevented Alan from having to give the heart-breaking response of ‘or nothing’ to the town’s cream of amateur thespians.

The actors’ union was sorely unimpressed by Alan’s desire to mix amateur and professionals and declared it would not happen. Equally unimpressed was the Rudolf Friml Estate which had got wind of Alan’s plans and felt there might be a lack of due deference in his approach to the play. It rapidly put a stop to him by announcing a major tour of the musical was to take place in 1984.

Almost thirty years on, Alan is still waiting for news of that tour...

It was now April 1984 with the play scheduled to open in May. The playwright no longer had a musical on which to base his unwritten play, no extended cast and, most alarmingly, an immovable deadline as the season had already been announced. It was in this hour of need, that Alan remembered his fondness for Gay’s
The Beggar’s Opera and turned to the famous libretto.

“I greatly admired and had always wanted to direct The Beggar's Opera. And this in turn provided the missing piece to the whole venture. Gay's play not only had a plot which echoed almost perfectly the one I intended to write, but it also offered the ideal mirror image on which to build my own dramatic structure.”

It was the perfect solution and, even better, had a climax which greatly appealed to a playwright who had been subverting theatre form for 25 years. For think of the possibilities of a play where the climactic redemption is provided by nothing less than the extraordinary intervention of Gay himself into his own narrative....

“What I liked was the slightly cynical way in which Gay uses the device - if the town wants a happy ending, we’ll tag one on. From years of hearing the public say to me, ‘I think you could have made it happier at the end,’ I knew exactly how Gay felt’.”

This was far more exciting than Friml’s laborious stage directions and, as an added bonus, Gay’s piece was long out of copyright....

Having abandoned his amateurs, Alan whittled the cast down to a more manageable 13 professionals (still the largest Ayckbourn cast at that point) and began writing the play.

Of course, so late was he by then that the deadline had passed and rehearsals were scheduled to begin. As Alan furiously wrote, he sent his company to musical rehearsals to learn the songs. Fortunately, the director - a certain Mr. A. Ayckbourn - was somewhat used to the playwright’s tardiness and despite a late-arriving script, the play opened as intended on 2nd of May 1984 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. This was rather fortunate given that the first performance was also the press night; at the time, not for northern regional theatre companies the soft idea of previewing a show.

Despite being greeted by modest reviews, it played to packed audiences in Scarborough and the following year, PALOS successfully trooped into the National Theatre - led by Michael Gambon. The play would later transfer to the West End before finding success around the globe as one of Alan’s perennially popular plays.

And it’s even loved by amateur dramatic societies, although how they find time to stage it amidst all the betrayals, backstabbing and backhanders is another matter.

Or is that just PALOS?

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