The Fearsome Threesome / Ghost Stories: History

With thanks to Jeannie Swales and Ron Shearman for providing the pieces to solve the puzzle.

The Fearsome Threesome
(also known as Ghost Stories or possibly Ghost Story) is a long forgotten production which featured an original piece of writing by Alan Ayckbourn. It's existence only came to light during 2018 thanks to the Stephen Joseph Theatre's press officer Jeannie Swales.

The piece itself was thought lost and very few details of the production have been recorded with the playwright himself only having the vaguest memory of the piece.

The Fearsome Threesome or Ghost Stories (as it was promoted) was a late night event in the Studio at the Stephen Jospeh Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, during the 1989 / 90 winter season. It had just six performances on consecutive Fridays and Saturdays between 29 December 1989 and 13 January 1990 following the evening's performance of Alan Ayckbourn's revival of his classic play Absurd Person Singular.

Ghost Stories was advertised within the winter brochure as 'a short season of late-night readings of ghost stories in the studio theatre' - confusingly although the brochure copy is for Ghost Stories, within the diary section of the brochure, the piece is called Ghost Story. There is no mention of Alan Ayckbourn either writing or directing the piece which suggests a late change to the planned production as there is no indication any other ghost stories were read during the actual run. Just to confuse the title issue a little more, Alan's script is actually called The Fearsome Threesome but which does not appear to have ever been used in advertising or promotion.

The story is a monologue read by a female actor, sat by a table with a bottle of wine and an empty glass, who becomes aware of the audience and tells her tale of 'The Fearsome Threesome'. Two years earlier, following an acrimonious divorce, the narrator unexpectedly meets a couple, Martin and Sheila, at the theatre and they immediately become fast friends. The initial warmth of the friendship soon becomes tainted by the narrator's jealousy of Martin and Sheila's seemingly perfect and happy relationship; she feels they do not appreciate what they have nor experience the difficulties most people encounter in life. She tries to disrupt their happiness initially with petty acts of vandalism which gradually escalate until she poisons Sheila and seduces Martin; by which point it has become obvious that the narrator is an unreliable - arguably unstable - narrator, who sees her dangerous and malevolent actions as an entirely rationale response to Sheila and Martin'a apparently perfect relationship. When Sheila and Martin eventually shut the narrator out of their lives, she decides they are still being unreasonable in their happiness and decides to take away the one thing she believes makes them happy, their home. She sets fire to the house, unwittingly - perhaps - killing Martin and Sheila in the process. Having told her tale with no regrets, the narrator reveals it is the first anniversary of the fire as she opens the bottle of wine she mysteriously received shortly before the fire and which she believes came from Martin as a thank you for making love to him. She drinks the wine before quickly collapsing back into the seat, managing a final toast to 'absent friends'…

Behind her two charred. frightening figures mysteriously appear. Bespectacled. They are holding wine glasses. The two figures raise their glasses in mock salute. The women sees them and gives a great cry, goes rigid for a second and then slumps in he chair, dead. Distant laughter is heard as the two figures raise their wine glasses in a mocking toast. They vanish mysteriously as they appeared.

The theatre's press officer, Jeannie Swales, recalls at the end of the production, the apparitions in all their burnt glory materialised courtesy of a 'Pepper's Ghost' effect with the two ghosts played by Jeannie and the box office manager Joy Beadle.

Given the small space in the Studio, it appears it was quite an effort to create a 'Pepper's Ghost' which requires a large sheet of angled glass in order to produce the illusion of people and objects fading in and out of existence (one of the most famous uses of it is within Walt Disney theme parks in the 'ballroom' sequence of the
Haunted Mansion ride). Jeannie also recalls the effect wasn't terribly effective! The two 'ghosts' were required to wear an 'unpleasant' costume which gave the appearance of burnt and melted spectres. Given the amount fo effort involved to produce the 'Pepper's Ghost' effect, it is perhaps surprising there is no specific mention of the effect in the sole-surviving manuscript, held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York. Within the original script, the ghosts merely 'mysteriously' appears and disappear.

Although it is only speculation, the Studio saw the world premiere of Stephen Mallatratt's famed adaptation of Susan Hill's
The Woman In Black in 1987. It is on record that Alan was inspired by this to write his own ghost story to match the success of The Woman In Black - which eventually appeared as Haunting Julia in 1994. It does not seem far-fetched to suggest that The Fearsome Threesome was devised primarily to see whether a 'Pepper's Ghost' illusion could be created in the theatre's small studio space and perhaps incorporated into a play.

It is worth noting that with Martin and Sheila, Alan wrote one of his few 'happy couples' - as epitomised by Anthea and Richard in
Joking Apart - whose content and enviable relationship leads to a murderous envy in the narrator; although arguably in this case, Martin and Sheila may just be an 'ordinary' couple envied by someone unable to see how her own jealousy and narrational behaviour has blighted her own life.

The history of T
he Fearsome Threesome / Ghost Stories only came about by a series of happy coincidences. Jeannie Swales in 2018 recalled the show and the 'Pepper's Ghost' effect, but could not find any mention of it on this website nor remember what it was called. Alan's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was able to identify the piece as Ghost Stories from the Ayckbourn Archive's collection of Stephen Joseph Theatre brochures. The final piece of the puzzle was a manuscript - The Fearsome Threesome - discovered by the writer Rob Shearman more than two decades ago which he had given to Simon, but which neither were able to trace the providence of other than to confirm it was written by Alan Ayckbourn. Only in 2018, when Simon was looking through archived scripts and noticed the similarity between the plot and Jeannie's recollection, did the pieces come together and it transpire that The Fearsome Threesome was actually the basis for Ghost Stories.

Given the piece has been produced professionally at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round before being withdrawn by the playwright, it is now considered one of the playwright's '
Grey Plays'.

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