A Chorus Of Disapproval: BackgroundA Chorus Of Disapproval marked the 25th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s career as a playwright and was his 31st full-length play. It is one of the most popular of Alan's plays and his acclaimed production at the National Theatre in 1985 won more awards than any other single Ayckbourn production until The Norman Conquests transferred to New York in 2009.
A Chorus Of Disapproval was written following a request from Sir Peter Hall for Alan to write a play for The Olivier at the National Theatre and its scale - the play features the largest cast to that point in an Ayckbourn play - should be seen in that light. A Chorus Of Disapproval was in part a response to the challenge of successfully creating a play for the vast Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre.
In March 1984, the Scarborough Evening News announced Alan’s next work would be called A Chorus Of Disapproval and that it would be an ambitious play centred on an amateur dramatic society performing Rudolf Friml's The Vagabond King and would also incorporate local amateur performers (for further details, see Behind The Scenes).
This idea soon began to unravel though and - unable to use The Vagabond King - Alan decided to simplify his initial concept and went back to one of his original inspirations, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera; the change of plan, Alan was quick to concede, was to the benefit of the play. Alan admired The Beggar's Opera and thought it provided an ideal structure with its "short songs and a whole theme of corruption" which mirrored the themes of the play Alan intended to write.
With everything now in place, Alan began writing the play - as usual to the latest possible deadline of rehearsals - but with all the delays and changes he was unable to finish it before the deadline for rehearsals, leaving the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's musical director Paul Todd to lead the company in musical rehearsals of Gay's songs. This delay also affected the designer Edward Lipscomb who was not able to begin work on designing the play until after its first read-through with the company. Fortunately, Alan's needs for the play were relatively simple and the design would use the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's existing double revolve to move props into different combinations with the emphasis on lighting states. The simplicity of the set would be something Alan would fight to keep when the play eventually moved to London.
With rehearsals in full swing by mid-April, Alan sent the play to his agent Margaret Ramsay (better known as Peggy), Peter Hall and his regular London producer Michael Codron. Peggy wasn't sure what the audience would make of the operetta sections, but Alan reassured her the audience need know no more than it was about “prostitutes, pimps, highwaymen and so on”. Peter Hall immediately confirmed the National Theatre's interest in staging the play, although was unable to commit to producing it before April 1985. Alan made it clear that when it was eventually produced, he should be involved in all aspects of the show following the not altogether smooth production of Way Upstream at the National Theatre in 1982.
A Chorus Of Disapproval opened on 2 May 1984 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, and at a time when an Ayckbourn production was largely taken as a guaranteed success in Scarborough, it still performed better than expected and was a huge commercial and critical hit. The critics were by and large extremely taken with the play with only The Times in disagreement - critic Anthony Masters not unexpectedly truly disliked it; he had taken exception to the darker tone of Alan Ayckbourn's plays since Just between Ourselves (1976) and it was practically taken for granted by the playwright and the theatre that his reviews would be negative regardless of the play. In contrast, when A Chorus Of Disapproval transferred to London, The Times would review it twice in glowing terms with different critics.
Alan's mind now turned to the London transfer of the play which was scheduled for August 1985. Confirmed for the National Theatre's largest venue, The Olivier, the play (which already had the largest cast of any Ayckbourn play so far) was to get even larger. When writing it, Alan knew there was a good possibility it would transfer to the National and had allowed for the cast to be expanded to incorporate other members of Pendon Amateur Light Operatic Society for the musical scenes, which would be played by the understudies. Thus, the difficulty of transferring a play from an intimate space to a vast open space was cleverly negated.
Casting the play was slightly problematic though. Alan hoped to secure Michael Gambon, a veteran of Ayckbourn London productions, for the role of Dafydd ap Llewellyn, but there was a frustrating lack of progress with the National on casting. Alan apparently resorted to clandestinely sending Gambon a copy of the script in order to secure the actor; the National Theatre expressing surprise when he agreed to take the role. Casting was still not complete by April 1985 and with rehearsals set for June there was cause for concern as the pivotal role of Guy Jones had not been confirmed! The difficulty was largely the need for an actor to be able to hold a note, particularly when experienced singers such as Gemma Craven, Imelda Staunton and Kelly Hunter had already been cast. Peter Hall was keen on Michael Pennington, but when contract issues came up, Alan was left searching for a lead man at very shot notice. Fortunately he stumbled upon an old friend. Working in the National at the time was Bob Peck, an actor who Alan had discovered in an amateur company at Leeds in the 1960s and who he had helped move into professional acting, including appearing in the world premiere of Alan’s Family Circles (originally called The Story So Far...) in Scarborough. Here was someone who Alan knew would be a great asset to the production.
The play opened on 1 August 1985 and was already being predicted to be a great success by Alan's agent Peggy, who wrote "The National are aware, A Chorus Of Disapproval is going to be an enormous success." Her prediction was prescient, although the critics were mixed in their responses. While attracting predominantly positive notices, there was a strong difference of opinion to the quality of the play and frequently the pace of Alan’s direction. What was obvious though was the play was going to a phenomenal commercial success for the National. It also went on to win three major Best Comedy awards - the most he had yet received for a single play - including his first Olivier Award. The success of the show and the limited schedule of the National inevitably led to almost immediate questions about the play's future.
The cast was contracted until the end of April 1986 and Alan did not believe the show would survive once Michael Gambon left. The National was keen to transfer the play to the West End, although Alan made it clear in October 1985 he was against this. This began a protracted period of negotiation about the play’s fate which culminated with Alan agreeing to a transfer with a new cast so long as he was involved in it, particularly as he believed any transfer would need considerable work to bring it to the standard of the production at the National. He had seen what could happen with badly handled transfers, as when the National Theatre transferred Bedroom Farce to the West End in 1978, Alan had not been directly involved and the production had suffered as a result.
The hope must have been that the transfer would be a relatively smooth and simple operation. It wasn't. By March 1986 with many of the original cast’s contracts due to expire, Alan found himself at loggerheads with the producers about casting for the transfer. With Gambon leaving, Alan had the fortuitous luck to find Colin Blakely available and interested in the role of Dafydd; a role Alan believed he would excel at. Unfortunately the play’s producer, Peter Baldwin, believed Blakely was not a big enough star and if he was cast, a star name would be needed for the role of Guy Jones. Alan pointed out that, ironically, had the same criteria applied in the original casting, Bob Peck would never have been offered the role of Guy as in mid 1985 he was not a big enough 'name'. Only during the actual run of the play with the BBC showing Edge Of Darkness* had Peck become a household name almost overnight.
A new company took over the play at the National Theatre in April with Blakely as Dafydd and with Jim Norton as Guy, who would then transfer to the Lyric Theatre on 4 June. Correspondence from the time indicates Alan was far from convinced the transfer was necessary or would be successful, however the reviews were consistently good with Colin Blakely receiving almost unanimous praise for his energetic performance as Dafydd. A number of critics also mentioned how much more successful this transfer was than the 1985 transfer of Richard Eyre’s phenomenally successful National production of Guys And Dolls. Unfortunately, there were even more troubles ahead.
During the run, Colin Blakely was beset with ill-health which seriously affected the amount of performances he was able to do. After the show’s closure, producer Peter Baldwin noted the play had been beset by misfortune: “I feel that the final figures reflect the extreme bad luck we suffered on the production, which was doing quite nicely until Colin’s recurring illness, which coincided with our busiest period and killed any impetus that the show had developed.” The play closed on 7 March 1987 having not managed to recoup its costs; a disappointment compounded by the shock death shortly afterwards of Colin Blakely on 7 May 1987 from leukaemia. The loss was a significant one and a measure of how respected the actor was came on 4 October 1987 when a memorial evening was held at the Lyric Theatre. Amongst the tributes was a short piece, An Evening With PALOS, featuring Pendon Light Amateur Operatic Society written specially for the event by Alan with David Jason taking on the role of Dafydd and members of the National production resuming their roles. This short, funny sketch has only been performed twice; at the memorial event and later in 2012 by students of the University Of York to mark the first anniversary of the acquisition of the Ayckbourn Archive.
While the West End transfer was not the expected financial success, there was little doubt A Chorus Of Disapproval was going to be a very popular Ayckbourn play and this was immediately proved correct with a number of regional repertory productions staged during the latter half of 1987. In February 1988, Theatr Clwyd staged the play and this production became the basis for its first major tour, produced by Duncan C. Weldon and opening at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon in March 1988 ending at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford in May 1989; the production was directed by Clifford Williams, who at this point was a well-known and respected director for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but early in his career had directed the world premieres of Alan Ayckbourn's second and third plays - Love After All and Dad's Tale - at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959 and 1960. From there, it became a perennially popular play and has frequently toured; its popularity with theatres is unusual considering the large cast it demands. It has remained an extremely popular choice with professional and amateur companies ever since and in 2004, Alan revived the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, with Philip York as Dafydd and Bill Champion as Guy.
In 2012, A Chorus Of Disapproval returned to the West End with a revival directed by Trevor Nunn and produced by Sonia Friedman - the latter having been responsible for the acclaimed West End revival of Absent Friends earlier that year. The production featured Rob Brydon as Dafydd in his first West End stage role; he was consistently acclaimed as the most successful aspect of the revival and drew approval for his portrayal from the playwright too.
Although amateur productions were not licensed until 1989, Samuel French had published an acting edition of the text in December 1985, which was quickly followed by a mass market edition published by Faber & Faber in January 1986. This was the first Ayckbourn play to be published by Faber and it was later re-published as part of Faber's first collection of Ayckbourn plays.
And in 1988, there was the film. The less said about which is probably for the best! The play was adapted and directed by Death Wish director Michael Winner with an all-star cast including Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons. Although Alan is credited as co-screenwriter, the script was actually heavily adapted and cut by Winner and Alan spent no more than a day trying to re-write it and correct some of the damage done (most of his amendments apparently later 'lost' in the editing process). Alan had no further involvement and even left the country on a holiday to avoid the production. It was filmed on location in Scarborough, but is a poor reflection of the author's original intentions and does little justice to the play. But that’s another story….
The success of A Chorus Of Disapproval marked the start of a run of five plays which were both critical and commercial successes. He would follow A Chorus Of Disapproval with Woman In Mind, A Small Family Business, Henceforward... and Man Of The Moment; plays which forced critics to re-evaluate their perception of Alan Ayckbourn's plays as he began to tackle social and moral themes. This change in attitude was enhanced by his two years with the National Theatre as a company director between 1986 and 1988 and during which his skills as a director were finally widely acknowledged; his production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge was hailed as one of the definitive productions of the plays. As Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and Absent Friends defined Alan's success in the '70s, so A Chorus Of Disapproval through to Man Of The Moment defined Alan as a playwright in the 1980s.
* Shown on BBC2 in November 1985, Edge Of Darkness was an acclaimed contemporary thriller which netted six BAFTA awards including Best Actor for Bob Peck. The acclaim and success of the series led to the virtually unprecedented decision to show it over three consecutive nights on BBC1 just 10 days after it ended on BBC2.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.