Creating Confusions

Forty-six year ago today, Alan Ayckbourn premiered one of his most famous creations Confusions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

To mark the anniversary, we have an interview with Alan Ayckbourn by his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, which was originally published during 2015 as part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre‘s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Confusions: An Interview with Alan Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd

Simon Murgatroyd: Confusions is one of your most popular plays, what are your thoughts on it 41 years after you wrote it?

Alan Ayckbourn: Strangely, I’ve only directed it twice in four decades – both times in Scarborough – but I think it’s been managing alright, ticking away doing quite nicely for itself!

Where did the idea for Confusions come from?

Confusions was actually written for the five actors who were currently the Scarborough 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.

Posters for the world premiere production of Confusions at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1974 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It was also significant for re-launching touring from Scarborough’s Library Theatre for the first time in more than a decade, wasn’t it?

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 weekly repertory tour in Scarborough, Filey and Whitby – which was extraordinary as we would play Confusions in-the-round, three-sided and end-stage all in the space of a week! 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 Theatre 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 is 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?’

Poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s 2015 revival of Confusions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Do you think Confusions is still as relevant today as it was back in 1974?

I think they must still in some way be relevant. Essentially people haven’t changed over the years even if the externals – technology, society and the like – have. Lonely neglected wives still get stuck at home occasionally looking after children and sad, slightly drunk married men still try and pick up girls in bars. Extra marital affairs continue to flourish, bosses have affairs with their subordinates’ wives, and over-ambitious, well-meaning village events still end in inevitable chaos. And we all at some stage find ourselves sitting in some park bench or other and feeling as lonely as hell. But then that’s life.

Confusions marked the first time you seriously tackled the one-act play format, something you returned to after a long break in recent years. What are your thoughts approaching the form now as compared to then?

I haven’t really had much practise in writing one act plays. 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.

You can find out more about Confusions in the Plays section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce the article without permission of the copyright holder. Please do not reproduce any of the images without permission of the relevant named copyright holder.

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