Confusions: Background

Confusions capped a year of great success for Alan Ayckbourn. It was written in the autumn of 1974, the year in which The Norman Conquests trilogy opened in London to great acclaim, joining Absurd Person Singular which had opened the previous year to similar plaudits. In Scarborough, Alan had also premiered Absent Friends, an important transition play for the writer and to top it all, he wrote Confusions, a collection of five (very) loosely linked, one-act plays developed out of a necessity to produce a new Ayckbourn play to launch both a winter season and a small touring programme.

By 1974, Alan Ayckbourn had been the Artistic Director at the
Library Theatre, Scarborough, for two years and had decided to expand the company’s work - which had been reduced to just a summer season since 1961 - to try and keep the acting company together. However, the company did not have a permanent home for the winter as Scarborough Library, home of the Library Theatre, was unavailable - a clear sign of the growing desire of the Libraries Committee for the theatre company to move elsewhere.

With it deemed important to have an Ayckbourn production in the proposed winter season, the easiest solution would have been to revive the summer production of
Absent Friends. Unfortunately, this had already been sold to the producer Michael Codron whose intent to open it in London in early 1975 meant it was not available for Alan to revive. Not wanting to write another full length play so soon after the last and tasked with having to specifically write a play for a company of five actors which was also flexible enough to easily tour to a wide variety of venues, Alan’s solution was to create an evening of short one-act plays. This in itself was usual as, at this point in his career, Alan had little experience of writing one act plays; his only professionally produced one act play previous to Confusions was the short piece Countdown for the anthology show Mixed Doubles.

The first
Confusions play was an existing piece called Mother Figure. This had been written the previous year for an entertainment entitled Mixed Blessings; an anthology of plays themed to parents and children by various writers which had been inspired by the success of a similar project Mixed Doubles in 1969. Mixed Blessings was performed for a week in Horsham, Sussex, apparently on a pre-West End tour, but was never seen again. Alan took Mother Figure back and built Confusions around it.

Having initially decided on six one act plays (see
Behind The Scenes), Alan refined the structure to five one act plays with - initially - no common theme. A loose link from one play to the next (the unseen husband, Harry, from Mother Figure appears in Drinking Companion. The waiter who briefly appears in Drinking Companion is the waiter who is the focus of Between Mouthfuls. The diner Mrs Pearce in Between Mouthfuls returns in Gosforth's Fête. Gosforth's ex-wife mentioned in Gosforth's Fete is Doreen in A Talk In The Park) was actually only clarified after a request from the producer Michael Codron; which would later turn out to be an ironic decision. By the time he came to write the play, Alan has said the over-riding impetus was to create an ensemble piece specifically for his company, which would not only show off their talents but also be an interesting challenge for them to perform.

As a result, the five plays are intended as a showcase for five actors with 20 characters*; each actor comes to prominence in each of the different plays. They are written in very different styles and the plays build up to the crescendo of the fourth piece
Gosforth’s Fête - which is by far the most famous and popular of the five plays - before concluding on a dying fall with a series of monologues called A Talk In The Park. This is one of the most contentious aspects of the play and it is not unknown for productions to drop the final play, determined as they are to end on the comic high of Gosforth’s Fête. To say this misunderstands the playwright’s original intent and does a great dis-service to both the playwright and the play is something of an understatement.

Confusions opened in the winter of 1974 at the Library Theatre and began a local tour that has become the stuff of legend within the Scarborough company. On Tuesdays, the play would visit Filey to be performed in-the-round; on Wednesdays and Thursdays it would visit Whitby to be performed in the proscenium arch. On Fridays and Saturdays, the company would return to Scarborough and perform it in the Library Theatre three sided (Confusions was one of only two Ayckbourn plays to be performed in the theatre's smaller Lecture Room, rather than the usual Concert Room). The tour was a success though and would also tour out to Hull, Workington, Ulverstone and Kendal. Confusions was later successfully revived in 1975 as part of the Library Theatre’s summer season.

Of significant interest was the fact Alan sold
Confusions to the London producer Michael Codron - who was very enthusiastic about the play - before it had even had its first performance. In an article in The Stage in September 1974, Alan was quoted as saying he had never sold a play to London so quickly and that he expected it to open in the West End in January 1975; barely weeks after it would have closed in Scarborough. Confusions did not however reach London until May 1976 largely due to casting issues. It is also worth noting that Confusions was one of Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay - Alan's agent - favourite Ayckbourn plays and having read it, immediately sent Alan a telegram declaring it contained some of his best writing.

Codron initially hoped that Eric Thompson would direct the London production having so successfully directed
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests in the West End. His schedule, which included directing the West End productions of Jeeves and Absent Friends, as well as the Broadway productions of Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests precluded this though and Alan Strachan was brought in as the director. This would be the first time he would work with Alan Ayckbourn, but it began a long relationship which led to Strachan subsequently directing the London premiere of Just Between Ourselves and overseeing the recast of several subsequent London Ayckbourn productions; Alan Strachan is now regarded as a pre-eminent director of Alan Ayckbourn's plays. The London production would star the husband and wife team of John Alderton and Pauline Collins.

The production and its preceding tour would be cursed with bad luck though. During the tour, Alderton broke his ankle and performed one performance in a wheelchair and a number of others with his leg in a cast. The actress Sheila Gish also fell ill during the tour and in a run of bad luck was also involved in a car accident which led to her missing six weeks from the run, whilst Derek Fowlds had to take a break during the London run due to contracting mumps. Once the play was settled in London, Pauline Collins also became pregnant which precluded an extended run for the production and led to extensive and frequent modifications of Collins' costumes to accommodate the pregnancy.

Alan has always had an issue with the way the West End distorts his plays, particularly in the frequent need to attach star names to London productions for what are, essentially, ensemble plays. While there is no doubting John Alderton gave a well-received performance in
Confusions, there is also no doubt the London production became a vehicle for both him and Pauline Collins; they became the stars of what was written as an ensemble production. No better proof of this can be given than the fact John Alderton played the main role in three of the acts (Harry in Drinking Companion, the Waiter in Between Mouthfuls and Gosforth in Gosforth's Fête), which not only went against the grain of the playwright's intentions but also lost the subtle linking thread between the plays; somewhat ironic given the tenuous links between the plays has only been added at the request of the London producer, Michael Codron. The role of the Waiter in Drinking Companion and Between Mouthfuls was, as written and originally performed, intended to be played by the same actor. By ignoring the author's intentions, this had an unforeseen impact given the abnormal precedence normally given to West End productions over the original productions. Several major publications on Alan Ayckbourn - wrongly taking the London production as definitive when it was not even directed by Alan Ayckbourn - incorrectly state it is not the same Waiter in the two acts of the play and, as a result, cannot with certainty say what links Drinking Companion and Between Mouthfuls. To clarify the author's intention, the Waiter is the same person in both plays.

Alan Ayckbourn recalls John Alderton later telling him that
Confusions has been a very difficult piece and very tiring as an actor; Alan did not correct him by pointing out it was only exhausting as he had taken the lion's share of the roles which were intended to be spread over the company.

Confusions opened at the Apollo Theatre on 19 May 1976 and had an eight month run, receiving some very positive reviews - although the Evening Standard’s then influential critic Milton Shulman was insistent that A Talk In The Park should not end the play, somehow entirely missing the point of the final play and Alan's desire to end on a dying fall. The production was a success, but not to the extent of the recent clutch of Ayckbourn plays which had taken the West End by storm. The reason for this was probably due to the nature of it being a series of one-act plays, rather than any particular fault with the evening itself.

Confusions closed in London in January 1977 and was immediately in demand from the regional repertory theatres, proving to be a popular and successful play. It is also the only Ayckbourn play to have an illegal production on record! In November 1978, a newspaper article came to Alan's attention noting the success of Ashford Theatre Workshop in the Spelthorne drama festival with a production of Mother Figure - despite the fact that although published, it had not yet been released for amateur production. This led to an article in Amateur Stage magazine in which Samuel French Ltd warned amateur companies against producing restricted or unreleased plays and that legal action was being considered relating to the unauthorised production of Mother Figure. Confusions has also become a favourite and frequent production of schools and colleges with Alsager's Comprehensive School in Cheshire performing the first school production in 1979. Indeed, the publishers Samuel French have it as the most performed Ayckbourn play by amateur companies since 1996.

In 1979, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of several different versions of
Confusions with a production of Mother Figure starring Maureen Lipman, Ray Brooks and Diane Bull; Alan noted at the time it was one of the few radio productions of his plays which he liked. Several more productions have also been broadcast, the BBC World Service produced Mother Figure, Between Mouthfuls and Gosforth's Fête in 1985 and BBC Radio 4 produced a version for schools (omitting Between Mouthfuls) in 1987. In 1988, Gosforth's Fête was recorded again (the third version in four years!) for a one off broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

In 1985,
Confusions became the first Ayckbourn play to be included as part of the National Curriculum in the United Kingdom as part of the 'O' Level syllabus and subsequently became a set text for GCSE examinations. This has led to it being published by several companies and is the only Ayckbourn play for which there has been a student edition constantly in print since 1983. In 2015, the programme for Alan Ayckbourn's revival - tying in with the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary - was a programme / play script, published by Bloomsbury.

In 1991, it would be revived in Scarborough with a production directed by Malcolm Hebden at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. In 2015, Alan Ayckbourn directed the play for the first time since its 1974 world premiere at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, with a revival as part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary. The opening night of the play coinciding with the birthday of the theatre on 14 July. This production also marked the play's New York premiere with it touring to the
Brits Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Theaters in 2016.

The 2015 revival also put the play in a new context as, by this time, Alan had become fond of writing one act plays and it offered a chance to compare how Alan wrote one acts early in his career and then far later with plays such as
Farcicals and Roundelay.

Confusions has remained a perennial Ayckbourn favourite ever since the 1980s for professional, amateur and school companies and is particularly popular with amateur companies where the different acts are often performed in drama festivals or in various combinations.

* Although there are 22 roles in the play, strictly speaking there are only 20 characters as the Waiter and Mrs Pearce both appear in two of the plays.

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