A Word From Our Sponsor: BackgroundA Word From Our Sponsor was the final Alan Ayckbourn play to be premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough; the venue where he had premiered all but one of his plays since 1977. Alan had been immersed in efforts to move the company to a new home at Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema since 1990 and by 1995, the new building was nearing completion and Alan wrote his final play for the venue which had been home to the company for 20 years.
The play was conceived at least two years prior to its premiere in - at the very latest - 1993; in an interview with Alan from 1995, he states he had the idea for a non-musical version of the play two years earlier. Unfortunately, this does put a slight dampener on the oft-repeated view the play was Alan’s comment on his experiences funding the new theatre rather than - more realistically - a reflection of the general funding situation of the arts in the UK at that time. The play premiered during a period when money to the arts was being slashed in the UK and the Government was insisting arts organisations become more self-sufficient through higher prices or outside sponsorship. A Word From Our Sponsor is a Faustian tale where the devil offers a vicar the opportunity to stage a community nativity play, but with certain compromising provisos attached.
Alan wrote the musical with the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's Musical Director, John Pattison, and it was their second full-length collaboration following Dreams From A Summer House (1992). A Word From Our Sponsor opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in February 1995 and was well-received by audiences and had good attendances. The critics were less than happy with the experience though with many reviewers drawing their daggers. The play was roundly mauled critically with many reviews taking particularly offence at the ‘easy’ ending, where the devil is beaten away by a clarion call of ‘We Can Do It’.
The critical reception though was forgotten in a genuine tragedy. On the afternoon of 3 June, prior to the play’s final performance in Scarborough, the actress Sophie Winter collapsed. She died in hospital the following day from complications following an ectopic pregnancy. Alan had worked with Sophie on three prior productions and she was a well liked member of the company. Alan told the company the news himself and would write Sophie’s obituary for The Independent as well as leading a memorial service in Scarborough.
A Word From Our Sponsor was due to open at the Chichester Festival Theatre - in The Minerva - the following week. This was delayed by a week and the role of Gussie recast with Phyllida Hancock, who Alan had seen in recent auditions. The play ran for four weeks at the festival and, although published, has rarely been produced since.
The company moved into the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, where Sophie’s Fountain, a permanent tribute to the actress, can be found in the atrium.
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