Rodney Ackland was born Norman Ackland Bernstein in Westcliff-on-Sea in 1908, the son of a businessman and a musical comedy star, Ada Rodney. Ackland’s early life was spent on tour with his mother until she ‘retired’ to raise her family.
After training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, he began his theatrical career as an actor and director in regional repertory and West End theatres. He started writing his first play, Improper People, when he was only fifteen and it was successfully staged in 1929 at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End when Ackland was a mere 21 years old. When Strange Orchestra was given a try-out production at the Embassy Theatre, it attracted the attention of the young John Gielgud who, in 1932, chose it as his first contemporary play to direct in the West End. The top director, Frith Banbury, was so impressed by it: “From then on I made a point of seeing, generally more than once, every Ackland play that was produced.” He went on to be a champion of Ackland’s work, directing and producing many subsequent Ackland plays. The Old Ladies, an adaptation of the Hugh Walpole novella, followed in 1935, again directed by John Gielgud. It starred Edith Evans, Mary Jerrold and Jean Cadell. It was revived in 1968 with Flora Robson.
After October, written in 1936, is probably his most autobiographical play, reflecting his own trials and aspirations as a writer and creating the atmosphere of a chaotic bohemian household. Indeed, Ackland played the Oliver Nashwick role in the original 1936 production which transferred from the Arts Theatre to the Criterion.
The Dark River in 1937 starred Peggy Ashcroft as Catherine Lisle. On its revival at the Orange Tree Theatre in 1984. The Spectator called it “perhaps the one indisputably great play of the past half-century in English”. The White Guard, adapted from Bulgakov, was performed in 1938. The Diary of A Scoundrel, Ackland’s adaptation of the Ostrovsky original,was a hit in 1942 and was revived in 1988 at the Old Vic under the title Too Clever by Half, starring Alex Jennings and directed by Richard Jones. His Crime and Punishment, adapted from Dostoyevsky andstarring John Gielgud, Edith Evans and Peter Ustinov premiered in 1945 .
Before the Party was a major West End hit on its original production at the St Martin’s Theatre in 1949, starring Constance Cummings as Laura and running for a hundred performances. It was televised in Britain and America. The success of the play allowed Ackland to build a new life with his wife Mabby, the daughter of playwright Frederick Lonsdale whom he married in 1952, and the couple moved to Cornwall. The play was revived by Tom Conti at the Queen’s Theatre in 1980 with Phyllis Calvert, Michael Gough and Jane Asher.
Rodney Ackland worked extensively as a screenwriter, collaborating with, amongst others, Alfred Hitchcock and Terence Rattigan. The latter financed a London transfer of Ackland’s large-scale theatre play, originally produced in Brighton, and titled “The Pink Room” (with a sub-title of “The Escapists”). It opened in June 1952 at the Lyric, Hammersmith, directed by Frith Banbury. Clearly ahead of its time, it received generally hostile reviews, which led Ackland to abandon writing for the theatre for some years. But tastes change, and in 1988 Sam Walters and John Gardyne presented the work at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, under a new title “Absolute Hell”. A great success, the play was then adapted and directed for television by Antony Page, starring Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, who both subsequently starred in a highly-acclaimed National Theatre production in 1995.
Returning to playwrighting after his disappointment with The Pink Room, Ackland’s next West End Success came with Frith Banbury’s production of A Dead Secret in 1957 with a cast which included Paul Schofield, Dinsdale Landen, Megs Jenkins and Arthur Lowe. Two years later, his Farewell, Farewell Eugene at the Garrick Theatre starred Margaret Rutherford who revisited the ‘Minerva’ role in the 1960 Broadway production at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Having enjoyed an extremely happy marriage to Mabby, Ackland was devastated by her death in 1972 and suffered a breakdown. Tom Conti’s West End production of Before the Party and Sam Walters’ Orange Tree Theatre revivals of other plays marked a turning point, in his private life and professionally, leading to renewed appreciation of Rodney Ackland’s work and cementing his place in British theatre history.
Ackland’s plays continue to be performed in all parts of the world and continue to excite interest with new generations of theatregoers as they did on their original productions.
After October was last revived at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1997, starring Dorothy Tutin. This is the first Central London production of the play in 80 years.
Rodney Ackland died in 1991.
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