Season's Greetings: History

Season's Greetings is now regarded as something of a classic Ayckbourn play and has become a perennially popular production for professional and amateur companies around the festive season. Yet despite its success, the play originally had a rough ride in London and almost missed out on West End success.

The play was Alan's second to be set around Christmas, following the rather brutal treatment of the festivities in the acclaimed play
Absurd Person Singular. On the surface, Season's Greetings deals with a far more traditional Christmas celebration at the home of the Bunkers with all the family gathered around. Of course, this is ripe ground for the playwright, who slowly begins to reveal all the insecurities, tensions and frustrations of the family. As Alan once noted to his agent, Christmas is a gift for dramatists when people who can't stand each other are forced together! The play also cleverly made sure the children are seen but not heard, which is more than made up for by the adults practically regressing to their childhoods as the celebrations progress.

Rather worryingly, Alan has said on numerous occasions, the play is also a reflection of his own family Christmas experiences and Bernard's hideous puppet show is inspired by Alan's own experiences of giving his sons a puppet theatre for a present one Christmas and his attempts to stage a show!
Behind The Scenes: Sight Unseen
Season's Greetings was not actually the play Alan Ayckbourn intended to write. In July 1980, it was announced his next play would be called Sight Unseen, later revealed to be a thriller and bearing no resemblance to Season's Greetings. However, when Alan began writing the play, he had difficulties realising the idea of a random-killer thriller and abandoned Sight Unseen. Instead he wrote at the last minute (delays in writing meant the first performance was pushed back a day) Season's Greetings instead. The only surviving notes for Sight Unseen show the only common thread between the two plays is some of the character's names, Christmas and the setting of a hallway. Further details about Sight Unseen can be found in Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd's book Unseen Ayckbourn.
The play was originally billed as Alan's silver anniversary play - his 25th - and the programme even had a silver cover to mark this; at the time, Alan did not count Jeeves as part of his play canon and, as a result, Season's Greetings is now considered his 26th play. The play premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, on 25 September 1980 and was an immediate success (albeit it only initially had four performances); it opened a day later than originally scheduled due to problems writing the play arriving only just in time for rehearsals.

Season's Greetings then immediately toured in October with the original Scarborough company to London to The Round House theatre. Alan's experiences with the West End had become increasingly negative in recent years and he was looking for alternative solutions to the traditional star-led West End transfers. He had been in talks with Thelma Holt, artistic director of The Round House, for some time about the possibilities of transferring the Scarborough company to the venue with the hope of exposing London to the plays as they were conceived in the round and for an ensemble company, rather than in the proscenium arch with a star-dominated company. The experience, while worthwhile, was not a success. The Round House was considerably larger than the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in both its stage size and audience size and Alan felt the play got lost in the space; it was met with agreeable reviews but very poor audiences. However, this did mark the first time Alan Ayckbourn directed a play in-the-round in London and the first time the original Scarborough company also performed in London. Following the two week London run, the production returned to Scarborough to open the winter season where it went into repertory until early January.

It is difficult to judge how much the London tour affected the play's potential viability for the West End. Alan's regular producer Michael Codron was unsure about the play and correspondence indicates neither he nor Alan's agent were convinced the play could move into a West End theatre so soon after a less than triumphant tour of the play to London. With apparently little interest in taking the play to the West End, Alan decided to refine the play - shortening it as well as altering it from a three act to a two act play - and revived it in May 1981 in Scarborough to success again.

At the same time, the artistic director of Greenwich Theatre, Alan Strachan, contacted Alan enquiring whether he would be interested in staging
Season's Greetings at Greenwich, as he'd enjoyed the play. Alan suggested he'd be interested in directing a new production for Greenwich and it has to be assumed he had in mind the circumstances surrounding The Norman Conquests; the trilogy had also seemed unlikely to transfer to the West End until it was staged at Greenwich Theatre, where it was so successful the entire trilogy immediately transferred to the West End with memorable results.

Alan Strachan agreed to this and a strong ensemble cast was assembled with Alan directing the play, which opened in January 1982. There was an option to transfer the production to London if successful and Michael Codron asked to be involved in the production, presumably also with an eye to a West End transfer. This was again similar to
The Norman Conquests where Codron had been quietly and intrinsically involved with the Greenwich production from the start; when it proved to be a success he had the first option to take it into the West End despite great interest from other producers.
Behind The Scenes: Out Of Sight…
The world premiere production of Season's Greetings was held at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1980. Alan Ayckbourn would then revive it for the same venue the following year having revised and refined the play. The biggest differences between the two scripts (which are essentially the same although the revised version is significantly shorter) is a reduced running time, a reduction from three to two acts and the excision of an unseen character. The original play featured Harvey's wife, Shirley, an unseen and unheard character who nonetheless is constantly addressed by all the characters. Alan Ayckbourn felt the presence of Shirley made Harvey seem even more mad than he actually was by virtue of him constantly talking to an off-stage character whose responses were never heard by the audience, leading to the character's excision from the script.
Season's Greetings was a phenomenal success at Greenwich Theatre with excellent audiences and very positive reviews. Although he had been initially unsure about the play, Codron's decision to invest in Greenwich Theatre's production paid dividends as he immediately began negotiating its transfer into the West End. The production transferred to the Apollo Theatre and opened on 29 March with most of the Greenwich company intact. Although Alan felt something was lost in the transfer, it was nonetheless very well received and deemed a success.

The success on the West End led to an attempt to tour the play; Alan's recent experiences of the post West End tour had increasingly led him to believe they did not serve the play well and were an unnecessary delay before they could be released for regional repertory theatres to produce.
Season's Greetings more than confirmed these feelings when after 18 months, the tour had still not been produced and - aside from several exceptions - the play had not been released for general repertory production. By 1984, the rights to produce the tour were not renewed and the go-ahead was given for repertory theatres to produce the play. As correspondence between Alan's agents and his London producer made clear, this was the final nail in the West End touring coffin; Alan had written a phenomenally successful play which was in high demand yet he earned nothing from it for 18 months because the rights were tied up in a tour which did not happen.

Since 1984,
Season's Greetings has gone on to become one of Alan's most popular and consistently revived plays by both professional and amateur companies. The play did eventually tour, but not under a Michael Codron production. In September 1985, the Churchill Theatre in Bromley produced the play which was then taken on a major UK tour by the producer Duncan Weldon, starring Marti Caine and Lionel Blair.

It is also worth noting that given its success over the years,
Season's Greetings has more than any of Alan's other work highlighted the liberties that a minority of companies take with his plays and, ultimately, their lack of understanding or respect for an author's work (presumably not just Alan's plays). This was illustrated by the critic and Ayckbourn specialist Michael Billington who noted how the play has been criticised for keeping the children off-stage and how it is not unknown for some productions to actually bring the children on to the stage. As Billington points out, to do so is to show a fundamental misunderstanding of the play. Ayckbourn shows us the children before our very eyes; the real children are the adults and their childish needs and desires propel the play forward. Fortunately, the majority of companies aim to present the best possible production of Alan's plays, but if you do see a production of Season's Greetings which shows the slightest hint of a child on-stage, you're not seeing Season's Greetings as written by the author!

In 1985, the play was adapted for the radio and broadcast on the BBC World Service, directed by Gordon House. This production would later be released on audio cassette by the BBC (a rare example of one of the BBC's many radio adaptations to have gained a commercial release). The next year saw the play adapted for television again by the BBC, directed by Michael Simpson and featuring an excellent cast. This was the third Ayckbourn television adaptation in the space of two years by the BBC and this director, all of which were very successful. In 2003, the British Film Institute chose to incorporate it as one of the best examples of the ‘television play’ on British television and it is considered one of the finest small-screen adaptations of Alan's plays. Rarely repeated since, the television adaptation finally got a repeat on BBC4 in December 2011 to tie in with the BBC's
Imagine documentary on Alan Ayckbourn (ironically, despite Season's Greetings being one of the most requested repeats of an Ayckbourn television adaptation, the viewing figures did not even dent BBC4's top ten for that week). In 1999, it would be again adapted for BBC radio, this time directed by Polly Thomas and this version was subsequently released on CD and as a digital download in 2011.

In 2004, Alan Ayckbourn returned to the play reviving it for a tour starring Liza Goddard and Matthew Kelly. The tour was a joint production between the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. It was unusual in being the first attempt by Alan's home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, to stage a tour designed for larger end-stage venues. The tour was successful and the play received some excellent reviews.

In December 2010,
Season's Greetings was revived at the National Theatre, marking the first time an Ayckbourn play has been seen at the National Theatre since House & Garden in 2000. The play received an extremely positive critical response and was directed by Marianne Elliott in the Lyttelton auditorium with Catherine Tate as Belinda, Mark Gatiss as Bernard and David Troughton as Harvey. To mark the National Theatre's production, Faber & Faber published the play and also made it available as an ebook; this marked the first Ayckbourn play to be published in a digital format.

Season's Greetings was revived by Alan Ayckbourn with a well-received revival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during summer 2019 as part of his 60th playwriting anniversary. The production was directed by the author in-the-round for the first time since its world premiere production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Despite the play originally being premiered during the summer, there were occasional misgivings about the timing of the revival - not shared by the author who does not consider Season's Greetings any more a Christmas show than Absurd Person Singular. The perceived perception of the show as the theatre's Christmas presentation led to the theatre designing an alternative poster which put less emphasis on the seasonal aspect of the show.

Having proved its popularity repeatedly since its world premiere in the 1980s and now revived perennially by both professional and amateur companies alike,
Season's Greetings stands as one of the most popular and most performed Ayckbourn plays.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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