'Canary in the coalmine': Scarborough's Stephen Joseph theatre reopens for autumn

John Godber’s B&B drama – performed by the playwright, with his family – launches programme that includes one-woman Christmas show

A play written by John Godber during lockdown is to be performed by the playwright, his wife and their daughter at the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough. It is the centrepiece of an autumn season of work that marks the theatre’s long-awaited reopening for socially distanced audiences. With pantos across the land postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the season even includes a festive family show. A previously announced production of The Snow Queen has been revamped as a wicked one-woman show starring Polly Lister.

The theatre’s artistic director, Paul Robinson, has spent weeks planning the reopening this October. It feels, he said, “a bit like being the canary down the coalmine”, especially as the new season had mostly been programmed before the government finally gave the green light to indoor performances with reduced audiences last weekend.

The Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough.
The Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough. Photograph: Tony Bartholomew

Godber, one of the most performed writers in the English language, has given his new play the working title Sunny Side Up, and set it in a bed and breakfast in a fictional seaside town that “sounds a lot like Scarborough”, said Robinson. It will find the playwright starring once more alongside his wife, Jane Thornton, with whom he shared a stationary tandem on stage in the 2019 Brexit drama Scary Bikers. Their daughter Martha Godber will also appear in the new play. The three of them have spent lockdown at home, along with Martha’s sister Elizabeth, and Godber is “really fired up” to return to live theatre, said Robinson. The play will explore class, memory and the “fundamentals of Britishness”, as experienced in seaside towns that “can feel a little left behind”.

Established in 1955 by Stephen Joseph, the theatre is famous for its connection to Alan Ayckbourn, who spent decades as its artistic director and whose plays are premiered there with staggering alacrity. In May, it released Ayckbourn’s 84th play, Anno Domino, as a lockdown audio drama, with the playwright and his wife, Heather Stoney, playing all the roles.

Recognising that Ayckbourn’s older audiences are still shielding during the pandemic, the theatre will release a new digital version of his 1994 play Haunting Julia as a Christmas ghost story. Meanwhile, The Snow Queen, originally intended for a cast of five but now starring Lister alone, will show how creativity can be born from constrictions and prove “how inventive and surprising we can be”, said Robinson.

The Scarborough theatre reopened its doors a few weeks ago, allowing local cafe Eat Me to relocate temporarily to the building. SJT’s cinema programme has also recently resumed. This process has allowed them to test front of house procedures and safety measures and receive feedback from local audiences to ensure a successful return for live theatre. “People are really missing us,” Robinson said. Since he arrived at the theatre in 2016, the audience has grown by 30%, and he is looking forward to welcoming them back. Robinson acknowledged that for some larger venues, reopening amid the turmoil caused by Covid-19 is impossible. But he said he saw it as SJT’s duty to its community: “Our civic role has been sharpened.”

‘Our civic role has been sharpened’ … Paul Robinson.
‘Our civic role has been sharpened’ … Paul Robinson. Photograph: © Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media

Robinson is drawing inspiration from his memories of running the tiny Theatre503 above a pub in south London at the start of his career when he was “uninitiated but undaunted”. The new SJT season represents a return to that spirit of “creating lo-fi, small-scale work with big ambition”. Robinson said he intends to bring people back into his theatre with a combination of “irresistible programming and excellent health and safety measures”.

Although he is fully prepared for the season to be disrupted by any further lockdown restrictions, Robinson said he hoped that there was a thread of optimism in the shows about what life on the other side of the pandemic will look like. He has also commissioned new plays by Chris Bush (who is adapting Jane Eyre), Janice Okoh (who is adapting Benjamin Myers’s novel The Offing, set in nearby Robin Hood’s Bay) and Bea Roberts (whose script is inspired by the real-life voyage of Jack Lammiman from Whitby to the Arctic in 1991).

Social distancing will reduce the theatre’s famous in-the-round space to an audience of 85, allowing 2m distance between each viewer. That audience could grow to around 180 if the distance was reduced to 1m. The cult comedian and theatre-maker Daniel Kitson will visit Scarborough in the autumn and intends to do an in-the-round performance in the empty theatre, livestreamed to an audience that will be capped at its usual capacity of 404.

Dates for all productions and ticket information will be announced by the theatre in the coming weeks.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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