IN his 75th birthday year Alan Ayckbourn directs the world premiere of his latest play in Scarborough next month. This is his 78th play although the writer himself doesn’t keep count.
“I have a guy who lives upstairs in my house and he’s the archivist,” he explains. “He runs my website and comes down and says, ‘a big hit in Paris’ and I go, ‘thank you very much’.
So when I get a tweet from a man who lives in Dijon I say, ‘oh right, thank you’.
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This marks his 53rd year as a theatre director and his 55th as a playwright with his work has been translated into more than 35 languages. His latest, Roundelay, is a collection of five short plays – The Judge, The Novelist, The Politician, The Star, The Agent – which are intended to be seen in random order on any given day, to be decided by the audience ahead of each performance.
Someone has worked out there are 120 possibilities with no single show likely to be repeated during the run of this “unique adventure in live theatre” (to quote the writer) at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
“The plays are all related. Some are sequels to others which turn out to be preludes to others,” he explains. “The over-riding theme is memory, what we choose to remember and to forget. False memories. Personal histories we distort. The pasts we invent. Memories that age takes away from us. Long forgotten memories which time restores to us.
Memories of the same events, the details of which no two people ever quite share.”
This isn’t the first time he’s played around with time and alternative plotlines.
Communicating Doors is set in a hotel suite that moves through time, the story in Sisterly Feelings turned on the toss of a coin and Intimate Exchanges had two actors playing ten roles in a cycle of eight plays with each with two possible endings.
In Roundelay he feels he’s created “a confectionary assortment of five related short plays, each with differing flavours and colours and written to be played in no particular order”.
Audiences may worry they’re missing something by seeing the plays in a random order. “I’ve got this long-standing battle with my public who insist on putting orders on to things that have no order,” he says. “If another person comes up to me and says I did see The Norman Conquests the other day but saw them in the wrong order. You go, no there is no order. There isn’t a right order because I didn’t write them in any order,” he says.
“The plays are very different styles. One borders on the gothic horror and they go through to pure farce. One or two are quite sad ones. One that’s particularly lump in throat. I just wonder what that mix will do.
It’s like opening a big box of chocolates and starting with the caramel and then crunching through to the coffee cream.”
Among the cast are Richard Stacey and Russell Dixon, fresh from the Ayckbourn Ensemble national and New York tour with Arrivals & Departures and Time Of My Life.
Returning too is Alexandra Mathie, whose SJT company credits include Neighbourhood Watch, Dear Uncle and Private Fears In Public Places. Leigh Symonds and Nigel Hastings have all appeared in Scarborough before while Krystle Hylton was understudy with the STJ company on its 2012 UK tour of Surprises.
Debuting with the company are Brooke Kinsella, known for her role as Kelly Taylor in EastEnders, and Sophie Roberts, who was in Macbeth at Sheffield Crucible and Taking Sides at Chichester Festival Theatre and London’s West End.
As usual, Ayckbourn is directing but says the plays don’t change much in rehearsal. “I think I know now what I’m doing,” he says. “I always say I still make mistakes but they’re such big ones it’s impossible to remedy them without cancelling the whole show. The smaller ones – like has he got time to put his wig on? – I can solve because technically I’m quite adroit now. I should be after all this time.”
Roundelay comes during the SJT’s summer season of new writing with three world premieres and two new musical adaptations.
A brave move but one Ayckbourn applauds.
“Since I retired from running the place a few years back I got slightly worried at the back of my mind that the new play quota was going down. I understand why because it’s all encumbent on finance – and a new play is a risk,” he says.
“Hopefully people in Scarborough have got used to new work over the years and have had to take a punt on it. Normally we don’t disappoint them. Occasionally we have done absolute stinkers, I’m the first to acknowledge that. But they’re rare. You hold your hands up and say, sorry folks, trust us next time because we won’t make that mistake again.
“I always say to people that we don’t set out to give them a bad time, it just sort of happens. We always start off with that great blaze of optimism and the ship sails on, you go ‘ooh, here come the rocks’ and the thing sinks with all hands. And so occasionally it happens but normally new work is a high risk and it does require a little bit of underpinning financially.”
- Roundelay: Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, Sept 4-Oct 4. Box office 01723-370541 and sjt.uk.com