Way Upstream: Articles

This section features articles by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors on the play Way Upstream. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to access the relevant article.

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, for the Stephen Joseph Theatre's Circular publication and offers an in-depth look at how the world premiere production came together in 1981.

Heading Upstream

Articles by Alan Ayckbourn

Way Upstream
What is Way Upstream?

Articles by Other Authors

A Trip to Houston (Simon Murgatroyd)
For anyone fortunate enough to have been there, 1981 offered an astonishing transformation of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

In October, Alan Ayckbourn’s new play premiered and as audiences entered the auditorium, they were greeted by the sight of a river cruiser ‘floating’ on a body of water where the stage had previously been.

The play was
Way Upstream and it is, undoubtedly, one of the great theatre experiences which has been offered by this company and - especially considering the limitations of Westwood, the technology of the time and the sheer audacity of it all - it remains one of the key productions staged by the SJT since 1955.

Not that anyone probably appreciated what Alan was actually planning at the time...

The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round autumn / winter brochure barely even offers a clue as to what was coming - but then the brochure copy was notoriously written weeks before Alan had even put pen to paper whilst ideas were still formulating.

“At the time of going to press all we have is the title and a brief description that the play is a tale of mutiny snuff piracy set aboard a cabin cruiser on a sleepy English river, but rest assured that the script will arrive in time for rehearsals."

Way Upstream was scheduled to open on 6 October 1981 with rehearsals starting on 9 September. Alan began writing the play on 11 August! His designer, Edward Lipscomb recalled that he was told about the requirements of the play during the first week of September.

And what requirements they were.

Edward’s brief included a completely flooded stage into which actors could convincingly jump and fight, a cabin cruiser which could move through the water as well as a thunderstorm downpour. All to be completed in just four weeks before technical rehearsals began.

Edward later noted that, despite the tight deadlines, it was worth it for the experience: “Because time is so short, you get a great feeling of adrenalin running through you. And I don’t know of any other plays performed on boats on water, which made it all the more exciting.”

It was the biggest challenge any designer with the company had yet faced, but Edward took it in his stride and with the clock ticking, he began to explore ways to make the play reality.

He began by contacting Water Sculptures Ltd; a firm noted for creating water effects for venues such as the Lido in Paris. They were given the job of creating the torrential rainstorm during the second act as well as providing a solution as to how realistic bow waves and engine churn could be created in order to simulate the movement of the boat.

For the boat itself, Edward looked closer to home and turned to local boat-builder, Colin Wigglesworth, with the request for a boat without a bottom; there was no way a real boat could be used, so a boat shell which allowed a mechanism for movement was required. Fortunately, Colin's firm had a number of cabin cruiser moulds - which had not actually been used since 1965 - and the boat was cast in fibreglass in three parts in order that it could fit through the voms onto the stage.

For the task of making the boat move, Archer Industrial Systems of Scarborough was approached, marking its first venture into the theatre business. Edward wanted a design which could move a 19ft long boat forwards, backwards and sidewards within shallow water - all within a fortnight and without any specifics such as dimensions of the boat or the weight!

The firm’s solution was a track onto which a trolly was installed to enable the boat to move forwards and backwards. A large revolving plate was then installed onto the trolly which enabled the boat to slew; all this was manually operated by a winch system controlled from within one of the voms.

Meanwhile, a tank had to be constructed within the auditorium to hold the water. The front row was completely removed and Water Sculptures advised using heavy-duty plastic sheeting in order to give the 'tank' a limited flexibility rather than being rigid. This would hold the 91⁄2 inches of water needed to give the illusion of the boat moving without the mechanics being visible.

Onto this plastic sheeting, the track was laid alongside an isolated electrical system. On Sunday 28 September, the three parts of the boat were brought into the theatre and assembled on the trolley and plate in situ. There were just five days until the show opened and nothing had been tested. The slewing motor blew almost immediately as it was too small and a new one was ordered, arriving on the Thursday as the show opened on the Friday.

During all this, the company has been rehearsing on blocks which only vaguely resembled the space they would perform in as dimensions for the boat kept changing as it was being constructed. The first time the cast worked on the actual boat was the Monday before the show opened on the Friday.

On Tuesday 30 September, the 'tank' was filled with water from two high power hoses organised by Yorkshire Water Authority. Once filled, a product called 'Murk' was added to the water to give a realistic impression of, obviously, murky water and which hid the mechanics of operating the boat. Water Sculptures Ltd had also installed the rain effect with a simple pump and pipe which ran over the stage to a shower; this would create the drenching rainstorm during the second act.

Due to the challenges of constructing the set, the rainstorm was not actually tested until the day of the first performance with Edward recalling the fateful moment the rain was activated: "It rained so hard that the water bounced off the boat into the audience." Faced with potentially soaking the audience, the rain effect was, as a result, cancelled on the opening night.

But even once up and running, it was not problem-free. For the rain was essentially produced by a shower head over the stage which was prone to drip after the rain had stopped, somewhat ruining the illusion. The ingenious solution to this came from the theatre's Master Carpenter, Frank Matthews, who attached a black-painted yoghurt cup beneath the shower head. This was operated by string and would cover the shower head following the rain storm, capturing any stray drips.

With so much to test and check, it was decided to cancel the afternoon preview of the play for technical rehearsals, which finished just 25 minutes before the scheduled evening performance. This was the only cancellation during the entire run of the play in Scarborough.

The first performance was apparently full of local people who had worked on the play in some regard - from building the cruiser to designing the winch system - who cheered as the boat moved away from its moorings for the first time!

It was an extraordinary achievement and an equally extraordinary play, which became one of the fastest plays to sell out at the theatre since it had opened in 1955.
What is not generally recognised is it was also a repertory show...

It seems very likely that when the schedule for the winter was created, no-one had any idea Way Upstream would be quite as ambitious as it turned out. How else to explain that after closing on 7 November, it was scheduled to come back for just five days from 12 to 16 January the following year!

Despite the unlikely scenario of having less than 20 hours to strike the set of Making Tracks, rebuild the
Way Upstream set and re-flood the stage, Alan Ayckbourn recalls Way Upstream was revived for just five performances prior to crossing the Atlantic for a month- long residency at the Alley Theatre, Houston.

But that’s another story.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.