The Sparrow: BackgroundThe Sparrow is the last of Alan Ayckbourn’s early plays to be neither published nor performed again since its first production. Although Alan is not as dismissive of it as its other withdrawn predecessors, there is a sense of disappointment in the play's fate largely due to the response it received; this stood in direct contrast to the reception given to its immediate predecessor Relatively Speaking and its successor How The Other Half Loves.
The play was performed during the summer of 1967 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, while Alan was working as a radio drama producer for the BBC in Leeds. Alan's mentor Stephen Joseph was terminally ill with cancer and the Library Theatre was struggling to survive without the guiding hand of its founder and Artistic Director. Stephen had closed the Library Theatre at the end of the 1965 season and the 1966 season had been an amateur season, organised by the theatre manager Ken Boden. He persuaded Stephen to let professional productions resume in 1967, but only four plays, including The Sparrow, were produced and it was a shaky start for the revived company, particularly as it lacked the figure-head of Stephen who would die in October of the same year.
Historically, it is probably most notable for marking the first time Alan Ayckbourn directed one of his own plays in Scarborough (he had only previously directed his own work at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent). Subsequently every Ayckbourn play which has opened in Scarborough has been directed by Alan.
The Sparrow was originally entitled The Silver Collection and this title featured in early discussions about the summer programme and in the earliest advertising for the season. However, Alan disliked the title and it was later altered to The Sparrow; although in a programme note from 1968, Alan expresses dissatisfaction with this title too.
The production notably featured two actors who would go on to considerable success on stage and screen in the shape of Robert Powell and John Nettles. Alan had worked with Robert Powell previously at both the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent and on BBC Radio. The Sparrow was only John Nettles' second professional acting role following Alan Plater's Hop, Step and Jump at the Library Theatre earlier in the season.
The Sparrow was performed for just three weeks during the summer repertory and the Scarborough Evening News noted the West End producer Peter Bridge visited the show with The Stage later reporting he had taken an option on the play with the intent of producing it in the West End. Unfortunately, the play never appeared and when negotiations began for Alan's subsequent play How The Other Half Loves, there were clear signs of tension between and Alan and Peter Bridge due to the latter not bringing either The Sparrow or an earlier play Standing Room Only to the London stage; according to Alan it was Bridge who famously compared The Sparrow to Ann Jellicoe's play The Knack - purely by virtue of both having a central female character - and this, alongside Bridge expressing difficulties in finding a suitable young cast, was the excuse for not taking it into the West End. It is far more likely though Bridge's real reason was he wanted a safe play in a similar mould to Relatively Speaking and into which he could put a bankable star name - The Sparrow fulfilled neither of these criteria.
Despite Peter Bridge's lack of enthusiasm for the play, the critical reception was unanimously positive with the Daily Mail expecting it would join Relatively Speaking in the West End within a year and favourable comparisons being made in other reviews to both the playwrights Peter Shaffer and Harold Pinter. The play did exceptionally well in Scarborough and was part of a record-breaking summer season for the Library Theatre, yet despite this - and an unrealised plan to revive the play in 1971 at Salisbury Playhouse directed by Caroline Smith - The Sparrow has never been produced since. The only other public outings for the play have been a one-off rehearsed reading by the Huddersfield-based Dick & Lottie theatre company to mark its 10th anniversary in 2014 and several scenes performed as part of two Ayckbourn-related events organised in Scarborough by this website with the playwright. The play is also known to only exist in two original manuscripts; one held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York and the other in the Lord Chamberlain's Collection in the British Library.
Alan has said in subsequent years, he wonders how The Sparrow would have developed as a play had it been given more opportunity, but it was soon forgotten amidst the success of the West End production of Relatively Speaking in that same summer of 1967 and the consequent astonishing success of the plays which followed it. Although largely forgotten, many of Alan’s dominant themes are clearly on display and it offers a glimpse of a darker edge to Ayckbourn’s writing which would not appear again for several years to come.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.