A Word From Our Sponsor: History

A 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.

Between 1990 and 1995, Alan had been immersed in efforts to move the company to its first permanent home since being founded in 1955. With the renovation of Scarborough's former Odeon cinema nearing completion and a gruelling schedule to facilitate the move of the company in preparation for its opening in 1996, Alan wrote
A Word From Our Sponsor as his final piece for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, premiering in April 1995; it would be 20 months before the next Ayckbourn world premiere, The Champion Of Paribanou.
Behind The Scenes: First Mentions
The title A Word From Our Sponsor was first publicly mentioned in an article by Alan Ayckbourn for the SJT's Communicating Doors programme in 1994. A Word From Our Sponsor is presumed to have been one of the play ideas Alan had and abandoned before writing the time-travelling thriller.
There has been an oft-repeated argument regarding A Word From Our Sponsor that it was Alan's response and criticism to the difficulties in finding funding for the new theatre. This is unlikely though as, in an interview with Alan from 1995, he states he had the idea for a non-musical version of the play at least two years earlier. The concept of A Word From Our Sponsor dates back to at least 1993 when Alan Ayckbourn began working on his 46th play Private Fears In Public Places. Except, although advertised, the idea for that play fell apart and Alan turned to a back-up plan for another play. Although this has never specifically been identified as A Word From Our Sponsor, there is enough evidence from contemporary interviews and articles to support the theory this was his second idea for a play. Unfortunately, Alan was unable to make this idea work either and dropped A Word from Our Sponsor too; he would eventually write the time-travelling thriller Communicating Doors instead.

Alan would later note that his earlier attempts at making
A Word From Our Sponsor work had failed due to him struggling to find a way to deal with its more 'exotic' elements; his eventual solution was to make it into a musical.
Behind The Scenes: V Is For Evil
A Word From Our Sponsor continues Alan's tradition of having his most evil characters' names begin with a V; previously, there had been Vince in Way Upstream and Vic in Man Of The Moment. Obviously with the devil on stage, Alan had to go with another V (or two in this case) with Valda and Valder.
Whilst, as a result, it is difficult to argue the play is specifically related to Alan's recent fund-raising experiences, it undoubtedly is a reflection of the general funding situation of the arts in the UK at that time. The play premiered during a period when funding 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.

Having realised the piece needed to be a musical, Alan turned to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's Musical Director John Pattison. This would be their second full-length musical collaboration following
Dreams From A Summer House in 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.
Behind The Scenes: Sophie's Fountain
Alan originally considered that Sophie's Fountain might randomly squirt water outwards - reflecting Sophie's fun and mischievous nature. He realised though it might not be seen such a way by anyone hit by a random squirt of water!
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. Alan subsequently noted he doubt he would ever return to or revive the musical.

When the company moved into the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, a permanent tribute to the actress was placed in the atrium; Sophie’s Fountain.

A Word From Our Sponsor was published by Samuel French and has been revived since its opening, primarily by amateur companies.

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