Confusions: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview between Simon Murgatroyd and Alan Ayckbourn took place in February 2015 It was first published in the SJT Circular, before being used as a syndicated interview to promote the revival of Confusions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre during summer 2015.

Simon Murgatroyd: Confusions is one of your most popular plays, what are your thoughts on returning to it 41 years on?
Alan Ayckbourn:
It’s only the second time I’ve directed Confusions. I’ve never got round to reviving it myself, but I think it’s been managing alright, ticking away doing quite nicely for itself!

Last year, you made a rare return to the one act form with Roundelay, which - like Confusions - featured give one act plays. How do they compare?
I haven’t really had much practise in writing one act plays and haven’t written that many since Confusions. It is an interesting discipline to write to that sort of length as the construction is quite demanding. I think anything less than half-an-hour and you really do start to lose what I think of as dramatic form.
Looking back, I find it interesting that when I wrote
Gosforth’s Fête for Confusions, I was still writing something so situation-driven. These days I tend to get sucked sideways by character. When I was writing Confusions, I was at a phase in my writing career when I could still write those ‘and then this happens’ type of plays. Confusions is an interesting stepping stone for me as you can see where the future is - Absent Friends, but you can also see the past - How The Other Half Loves - which is pure situation.

Where did the idea for Confusions come from?
Confusions was also written for the five actors who were currently the company. I wrote them a little showcase really.
It was written at a time when I wanted theatre to primarily show off actors, I still do really, but in those days I thought people loved the idea of actors playing different roles and becoming different people. There is something marvellous about that which is still peculiarly theatrical; you don’t get that impression from movies and television in quite the way you do on stage. I think this is partly because you take the magic for granted in a sense on screen with computer generated images and special effects. But if an actor becomes someone right in front of your very eyes or changes from one person to another, you can still believe there’s a bit of magic somewhere. It’s a bit like watching a live magician: ‘I know you've fooled me, but I just want to know how you did it.’ That’s the basis of
Confusions.

It also re-launched touring from Scarborough’s Library Theatre for the first time in more than a decade.
Yes, it was the first time the Scarborough company went out on any major tour. We took Confusions out to the country. We came to places like Kendal, Lincoln, Hull & Warwick and just toured it around. It was a small cast and quite an easy show which you could put in the back of a van.
There was also a repertory tour in Scarborough, Filey and Whitby - which was extraordinary as we played in-the-round, three-sided and end-stage! It wasn’t a deliberate choice, we had no option as if we wanted to go to Whitby we had to play the Spa theatre which was end-stage. If we wanted to stay in Scarborough we could only use the small lecture room at the Library and that could only be three-sided. Filey was the only place it was done in the round, at the Sun Lounge - jokingly called the Rain Lounge as it leaked so much!

What about the five plays themselves?
Mother Figure was written for a short-lived multi-author entertainment called Mixed Blessings, which premiered in a theatre in Horsham and wasn’t very satisfactory as an evening. It’s always a bit hit and miss if you have eight different authors with four actors trying to juggle their different styles. I thought Mother Figure’s too good an idea to waste and I didn’t want it sitting there in Mixed Blessings. So I took it back and used it as a basis for Confusions.
Drinking Companion emerged from what I observed whilst staying at the Royal Hotel in Scarborough. There were an extraordinary pair of girls ensnaring businessmen, who came down looking for a bit of action with their badges still clipped to their nasty suits. You could go out into the main lobby and watch these girls coming down that big staircase, crashing down together like an enemy formation, scanning the place thinking, ‘who can we touch for a few drinks tonight?’ They did pretty well. They used to get bought a lot of drinks and occasionally dinner, but they would cut and run after dinner and this guy would go ‘what happened to my date?’
Between Mouthfuls was just an idea I had; what did waiters hear when they moved into ear-shot of a table? Do they ever hear what is said? And what do they recall? I was a very keen waiter-watcher. In the play, we never know if the waiter actually reacts to what he hears as it’s like he’s not there. Whereas we, as an audience, are able to put together an entire scenario based on these two entirely separate conversations.
Gosforth’s Fête is a traditional English farce. I put all the ingredients in there: funny scout-masters, funny vicars, stuffy councillors!
The final piece is
A Talk In The Park. By the end of Confusions, the actors have done so many roles chopping and changing. I just thought it would be quite nice to have them all there on the stage together and give the audience the chance to say, ‘Is that all there were of them?’

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.