ALAN Ayckbourn visits Esk Valley Theatre’s summer show each August at the moorland Robinson Institute in Glaisdale, not far from Whitby.
The company literature always carries a supportive comment from the Scarborough playwright, and last year he was even more appreciative of the work of Mark Stratton’s company because he chanced on the talent of Pickering actress Elizabeth Boag.
Now Elizabeth is playing surly young southern soldier Ez Swain in Ayckbourn’s 77th play, Arrivals & Departures, and wonderful reviews in the national press have greeted her Stephen Joseph Theatre debut.
“After Alan saw me last summer in Bernard Slade’s Same Time Next Year, I wrote him a letter saying ‘I’d love to work for you’ – and he sent me a postcard to say, ‘I’m writing this play; if anything comes up, I’ll be in touch’.”
True to his word, Ayckbourn has cast Elizabeth in not only Arrivals & Departures but also in his two one-act Farcicals farces, The Kidderminster Affair and Chloe With Love, which will run in the SJT restaurant and McCarthy theatre from August 30.
“It’s pretty amazing to now be performing there because, having grown up in Pickering, I’d gone to the SJT a lot, coming fairly regularly with my parents, who are still keen patrons of the theatre, and with school, ” says Elizabeth, a former head girl at Lady Lumley’s School.
“I can recall going from school to do a workshop with Alan in 1995 about a musical called Love Off The Shelf. I remember not wanting to do the backstage workshop; I definitely wanted to be an actress. The designer was there, the actors were there, and Alan did a brilliant talk about how to get a show from the page to the stage. I loved it.
“I also wrote a review of Alan’s play Communicating Doors for GCSE Drama and I came on a sixth form trip to By Jeeves when the present SJT theatre space opened.”
Elizabeth was hooked, going on to train in musical theatre at Mountview Academy, a move to London she has since made permanent. She has appeared in the West End production of Christopher Fry’s Lilies On The Land, the BBC soap Doctors, two Stephen Poliakoff dramas, the short-film series Jack Malchance and plays on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, before last summer brought her back home to appear in Slade’s romantic comedy.
She played wife, mother and adulteress Doris, opposite Andrew Piper’s George, in Slade’s exploration of the deep emotional intimacy that develops between two lovers over 25 years of playing away from home in Northern California. It could not have been more of a contrast with her role as a woman of 23 in Arrivals & Departures.
“Ez has been in the British Army for five years; she’s a professional soldier who wants to be that for the rest of her working life, but she’s a troubled soul,” says Elizabeth. “Her father was a soldier who died when she was quite young and she wants to emulate his career – and her relationship with her mother is tricky because of that.”
Ayckbourn tells taciturn Ez’s back-story in a series of bombshell flashback memories while she is on duty “babysitting a civilian witness” in a counter-terrorism operation at a London railway as they await the arrival of a suspected bomber.
To put it bluntly, Ez has severe attitude problems and psychological scars.
“She’s not a particularly appealing character,” says Elizabeth. “She’s quite hard from her past, so it’s a wonderful challenge to play her, and Alan really understands the ingredients that make up a female character.
“The key to Alan’s plays is that he writes really good parts for men and women. He just writes people brilliantly and he gifts actors with real people to play.”
The flashback scenes demand quick changes of mood and dynamic from Elizabeth. “At times I have to be cheerful but at the same time, it’s increasingly traumatic too, so I have to have the ability to turn on a dime,” she says.
The bonus is that Ayckbourn directs as well as writes. “It’s always enjoyable for me to do something new and create a role, but when you’re working with Alan on a play that he’s just written and is directing for the first time, it’s a huge privilege,” says Elizabeth.
“But it’s also a responsibility because there will be national and international interest. So there’s pressure to do justice to such a play, and I’m learning so much from being with such fantastic actors.
“It could have been daunting coming in as the new member of the cast and working with Alan for the first time, but I just have to trust the fact that he cast me in this role with all his knowledge from 76 previous plays.”
• Arrivals & Departures runs in rep until October 5; Farcicals from August 30 to October, both at Stephen Joseph Thetare, Scarborough. Box Office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com
• Did you know?
Elizabeth Boag is a bilingual actress, working in English and French. She made a short film in Paris 18 months ago and she often plays French roles in England, “though they usually involve speaking English in a French accent”, she says.