A night out at the Stephen Joseph Theatre these days is a relatively sophisticated affair – glamorous Art Deco surroundings, properly chilled wine, and always the off chance that you might end up rubbing shoulders with a glittering star of stage or screen.
Things were a little different back in the early 70s. The theatre – then known simply as the Theatre in the Round – had been going for two decades, since its founding in 1955 by Stephen Joseph, a dynamic and flamboyant theatrical pioneer credited with introducing theatre in the round to the UK.
Stephen had ended up in Scarborough much by accident – in his own words:
“For several years, John Wood, education officer for the North Riding Education Committee, had asked me to take part in weekend courses and summer schools in Yorkshire, and it was on a weekend course in acting at Wrea Head that he challenged me to put theatre in the round to the test of professional performance to the public. I told him of the difficulties in finding a suitable hall, in London.
“So he took me to the concert room in the Central Library at Scarborough; and after a friendly and helpful talk with WH Smettem, the librarian, our first booking was made... On the whole, a very good place in which to make experimental first steps.”
So Scarborough Library it was – for the next 21 years. In 1976, the theatre, now called the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in tribute to Stephen, who had died in 1967, moved to a ‘temporary’ home on the ground floor of the former boys’ high school at Westwood while it awaited the building of a purpose-built theatre, which never happened. In 1996, the theatre finally found its current home in the Odeon cinema.
Our exhibit this week, though, takes us back to the Library days, and Christmas 1974. The theatre had spent nearly two decades on the first floor, in the Concert Room, although for reasons now unclear, in the winters of 1974 and 1975 that room wasn’t available, and the rep company decamped to the smaller Lecture Room, where space restrictions meant performances weren’t actually in the round, but ‘thrust’, or three-sided.
Frost at Midnight took its English name from the title of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but was a translation from the play Les Trois Coups de Minuit by French playwright André Obey (1892-1975).
Set in 1499, it told the tale of a group of medieval actors attempting to stage a Christmas mystery play.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable is the names found in the pictured programme, and their long-running connection with this extraordinary theatre.
The cast was Carl Forgione (Blackwill, a nightwatchman); Christopher Godwin (Bradshaw, the blacksmith); Stuart Doughty (John Greene, an apprentice clerk); Stephen Mallatratt (Scott, the tailor); Ray Jewers (Dodger, the butcher); Kevin Wood (Lowell, the carpenter); Paul Webster (Hodge, the cobbler);
Eileen O’Brien (Alice, a serving maid), and Bob Eaton (Goodlack, the inn keeper). The show was directed by a certain Alan Ayckbourn, with music by Paul Todd.
Keen local theatre-goers will already have had at least two names from that cast list jump out at them, and spotted the connection with this summer’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
It was the late Stephen Mallatratt who attempted the seemingly impossible, and adapted the deeply chilling ghost story The Woman in Black, by Scarborough-born writer Susan Hill, for the stage. His ingenious production employs just two actors to create a panorama of characters, and since its world premiere at the Westwood site in 1987, it has has become a worldwide phenomenon, playing in the West End since 1989, making it the second longest-running play in the history of the West End after The Mousetrap.
And The Woman in Black has returned to its spiritual home of Scarborough this summer, in a new production by original director Robin Herford and starring none other than Christopher Godwin and his son, Tom.
The programme for Frost at Midnight can be seen at Scarborough Art Gallery as part of SJT at 60, a new exhibition looking at the history of the theatre, and running from July 11 to September 13. For further information, please contact the Gallery on 01723 374753 or firstname.lastname@example.org.