Christmas V Mastermind: History

To put it politely, Christmas V Mastermind could be considered the black sheep of the Alan Ayckbourn play canon. It has had just one production, has never been published and was self-dubbed Alan’s “most disastrous play”.
Behind The Scenes: Alternative Title
It is possible that Christmas V Mastermind began with a slightly different title. In an article in The Times, dated 3 December 1962, reporting on the Victoria Theatre's recent opening, there is mention of Alan Ayckbourn's new play as being titled Father Christmas Versus The Mastermind. Whether this was correct at the time of going to press is unknown, but it seems likely. This is the earliest known reference to the play (preceding even advertising for the play, which was notoriously very late) and whilst other articles refer to it by its correct title, they were all published later than this article and virtually all after the production had opened.
In 1955, Stephen Joseph had founded the UK's first professional in-the-round company, Studio Theatre Ltd, in Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. Alan Ayckbourn joined this company in 1957 as an actor and had begun writing for it in 1959. It had always been Stephen Joseph's ambition to have a permanent, purpose-built in-the-round theatre as the company's work in Scarborough was confined to short summer and winter seasons and always had an uncertain future.

When the opportunity came to set up a professional theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, Stephen grabbed the opportunity and Studio Theatre Ltd moved to a permanent home at the
Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, the UK's first professional in-the-round theatre venue. Although theatre-in-the-round continued in Scarborough with a new company, Scarborough Theatre Trust, many of the existing company members made the move to Stoke including Alan Ayckbourn. He would write, direct and act for the company under the Artistic Director Peter Cheeseman until 1964. Alan would not lose touch with Scarborough though and wrote plays in 1965 and 1967 for The Library Theatre, but he would not return permanently until 1969, two years after Stephen's death.

At the Victoria Theatre, the inaugural season saw Alan successfully revive his fourth play
Standing Room Only as well as writing his second seasonal show aimed at children, Christmas V Mastermind.
Behind The Scenes: Pirate Fairy
The actress Heather Stoney, later to also become Alan Ayckbourn's wife, played the role of the Fairy in the production and was reported in the local press on 27 December to have accidentally splashed cleaning fluid in her eye and, consequently, ended up playing the role for several performances with an eye-patch with dialogue to explain her appearance! She also recalls having to make her own fairy costume.
The play, which Ayckbourn readily admits was far from his finest moment, was hampered by a lack of publicity, little understanding of how to attract large numbers of children or families and - most damaging - was not advertised until well after other theatres had announced their Christmas productions. It was also performed during a freakish cold spell in a theatre with no heating. Audiences were sparse and not appreciative; one woman is reported to have threatened to never visit any theatre ever again after her experience.

The play ran for three consecutive weeks and, intriguingly, there are two differing surviving copies of the play's programme. One credits Peter Cheeseman as the director, the other credits both Peter and Alan Ayckbourn as directing the play. However, the playwright recalls that his contribution to directing the play was nominal at best - if at all - and he does not truly consider he was involved in directing the play. His programme note also seems to make clear that Peter was the director of the play; Alan himself cannot recall why there are differing programmes with one crediting him as director.

It is also apposite that Alan notes in the programme that: "I choose the word collaboration deliberately, for although most of the dialogue is mine, or was at the time of writing this, I have attempted as much as possible to give both the director, Peter Cheeseman, and the cast maximum scope for their own comic invention." This suggests there was an element of improvisation within rehearsals which is a rarity for any Ayckbourn play (and that, also, an actual final 'as performed' version of the script may not exist).
Behind The Scenes: Wrong Titles
For some unknown reason, the play-title became abbreviated in some articles and books during the '80s / '90s to Xmas Vs Mastermind, which irritated the playwright. The play should never be referred to with this, only by the title it was written and performed: Christmas V Mastermind.
It was also the first of Alan’s plays to feature the actress Heather Stoney who would appear in far more successful premieres of Alan’s plays and would eventually marry the playwright. It also marked the final performance of Alan Ayckbourn as an actor in one of his own works.

It was a true low-point in the aspiring writer’s career. Such was his lack of confidence in his ability to successfully write for a young audience after this experience, he would not attempt to write another full-length children’s play again until 1988 with
Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays; since that point his 'family' plays have become an integral part of his writing, drawing acclaim and fresh audiences and he has become a passionate advocate of writing for young people.

Christmas V Mastermind almost signalled the beginning of the end of Alan's playwriting career as his next play was Mr Whatnot. Although a genuine success at the Victoria Theatre, it was his first play to transfer to London where the critics slaughtered it. A chastised playwright left the Victoria Theatre to begin work at the BBC, uncertain of his future in theatre.

Christmas V Mastermind has never been published and is unavailable to produce. It is also one of the rarest Ayckbourn manuscripts with an original manuscript held at the British Library and one other manuscript known to be held in a private collection, of which a duplicate is held in the Ayckbourn Archive at The University of York.

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