Favourite Things: Confusions

Confusions is inarguably one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous and popular plays.

Premiered on 30 September 1974 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, Confusions was conceived as a showcase for the five actors who were part of the repertory company at the time. It was also written in order to relaunch touring from the Library Theatre (absent for the previous 12 years).

The original poster for the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1974 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

One of Alan Ayckbourn’s fondest memories of this initial production of Confusions was its extreme touring schedule. 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! This persisted for several weeks and must have been a challenge for all involved.

However, this column is about a Favourite item from the Ayckbourn Archive and for Confusions, it has to be a photograph of Alan in rehearsals at the Library Theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn (right) directing the world premiere of Confusions at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1974 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The photo sees a rather relaxed Alan looking on a scene from Between Mouthfuls with Stephen Mallatratt as the waiter and Christopher Godwin and Eileen O’Brien as Martin and Polly. The man with his back to the camera is probably the stage manager David Millard.

There are, of course, dozens of photographs of Alan Ayckbourn directing so what makes this one so special? Despite Alan having been directing for 13 years by this point, this makes the first time he was photographed directing the world premiere of one of his plays.

Prior to this point, the only other photographs we have of Alan directing is with an amateur company in Leeds during the late 1960s with a revival of Mr Whatnot.

Given Alan’s directing technique is well-known and loved by his actors, it actually seems a rather appropriate first photograph. Alan’s directing technique is a relaxed one and derives from some advice he was given by his mentor, Stephen Joseph.

“Stephen Joseph gave me some good advice; it was my first play and I said ‘Tell me about directing. What do I do?’, and he told me that a director’s job is to form an atmosphere in which the actors feel free to create.

Alan is renowned within his acting companies for the creative atmosphere and how he directs almost by anecdote, gently nudging his actors in the direction he wants through stories and experiences, allowing the actors to find the characters for themselves rather than being explicitly told what to do.

So this image is a piece of Ayckbourn history, but also quite rare in being a photograph of the Lecture Room at Scarborough’s Library Theatre. Traditionally the Library Theatre had performed in-the-round at the Concert Room on the first floor of Scarborough Public Library. However, during 1974 and 1975, the Concert Room was unavailable during the winter months and the Library Theatre shifted to the smaller Lecture Room on the same floor – its size precluded in-the-round productions so the world premiere of Alan’s plays Confusions and Just Between Ourselves were performed three-sided (or thrust) in the Lecture Room. There are very few photographs in existence of the company in the Lecture Room.

While we’re on the subject of Confusions, it’s worth answering one of the most frequently asked questions about the play in how do the five short plays all connect? This has always been a bit obscure – and not helped by the deliberate miscasting of the original West End production whose details have been reprinted in every acting edition of the play since.

As written and intended, there is a subtle link between each of the plays as Alan clarified in an interview I conducted in 2015: In Mother Figure, Lucy is married to Harry, who we see trying to call her. Harry is the businessman who appears in Drinking Companion and who is served drinks by a waiter. This is the same waiter who appears in Between Mouthfuls (at presumably the same hotel), who serves Mrs Pearce and her husband. Mrs Pearce appears in Gosforth’s Fête and mention is also made of her husband. In the final play, A Talk In The Park, the most subtle and easily missed connection is that Doreen is the former wife of Gosforth, who Milly mentions in Gosforth’s Fête. Doreen talks about her former husband being a landlord, which is a subtle reference to Gosforth.

Confusion regarding Confusions has arisen over the years as when it moved into the West End, the star pairing of Pauline Collins and John Alderton saw all the ‘main’ roles given to Alderton – so what was intended as a showcase for five actors became more about two ‘star’ names. As a result, the waiter was played by two people in the West End rather than the same actor, thus breaking the link.

So that’s my favourite item in the Ayckbourn Archive, a historical photograph of Alan directing; just one of hundreds of images held between the Ayckbourn Archive and The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

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