Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur

Paul Elsam
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama

Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur

In lists of theatrical pioneers of the 1950s, Stephen Joseph's name rarely appears near to the top, but Paul Elsam argues in his book that his achievements should be much more widely recognised.

Playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who ran the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for many years and has been Joseph's biggest advocate for a long time, would certainly agree. But what did he actually do to merit this place in history?

Elsam in his introduction calls him a "theatre all-rounder", but Ayckbourn says in his preface that he was "neither a playwright... nor a director... and certainly never an actor"—giving examples of how he failed at all three. However he adds that "he could talk lucidly about all three, writing, directing and acting better than anyone I have ever known".

Other than his book and other writings advocating theatre-in-the-round and adaptable stages over the ubiquitous—at the time—proscenium stage, his main legacy is in the people he influenced and inspired. As well as Ayckbourn, he gave opportunities to radical writers such as Alan Plater, James Saunders and David Campton and gave Harold Pinter the opportunity to redirect The Birthday Party after its critical mauling in 1958.

He also encouraged Peter Cheeseman to adopt in-the-round staging—Cheeseman ran the theatre-in-the-round at the Vic Theatre and the New Vic in Stoke for a long time, where he created verbatim theatre techniques and the musical documentary style of performance.

However Joseph was anti-authority to the extent of burning most of his bridges and falling out with a lot of people who may otherwise have worked with him.

Elsam's book is thorough rather than being written in a popular style, but it is certainly accessible to a non-academic reader. It dips into the worlds of regional and radical theatre, painting a vivid picture of what it was like to work in those worlds at that time.

But does he succeed in putting Joseph up there with the likes of Joan Littlewood, George Devine or Peters Brook and Hall? Not really, in my view, as these people created far more of note than Joseph was able to do in his short life—he died of cancer in 1967 at the age of only 46—but he is certainly worth remembering and studying as a man of vision and influence on other great figures of the theatre.

If you want to know more about Stephen Joseph and don't have the opportunity to chat with Alan Ayckbourn about him, Elsam's book is a great place to start.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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