Roundelay: Background

Roundelay is Alan Ayckbourn's 78th play and premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during summer 2014. It is considered to be one of his 'chance' plays such as Sisterly Feelings and It Could Be Any One Of Us.

Behind The Scenes: Alternate Titles
It is not uncommon for Alan Ayckbourn's plays to undergo title changes during the writing process. In this case, the play was originally called
I.O.U. before becoming Order Of Appearance and, finally, Roundelay.
Behind The Scenes: Alternate Plays
It wasn't just Roundelay which went through several titles, but also its constituent parts. The original concept of I.O.U. names its five one act plays as The Teacher, The Night Club, The Novelist, The Politician and The Star.
Alan had been formulating ideas for the play since 2012 and began work on writing it in spring 2013. It was completed on 8 December 2013 and is in part inspired by Alan Ayckbourn's fascination with Chris Ware's award-winning book Building Stories; a graphic novel consisting of a variety of elements, which it is up to the reader to choose in which order (or of how many) they wish to read. The random nature offers a different perspective on the events each time it is read and, dependent on their choices, each reader will have a different experience of the graphic novel.

To translate this idea onto the stage, Alan wrote
Roundelay, which consists of five self-contained one acts plays (The Judge, The Novelist, The Politician, The Star and The Agent), written to be performed in any order (leading to 120 possible combinations of the play); Alan's hope being that during a production run of the play it will be performed in as many permutations as possible. The plays themselves all being subtly inter-connected, sometimes through shared characters and sometimes through overlapping narrative. Some are prequels to others, being themselves in turn sequels to others. Theoretically, every night's audience will have a different perspective of the characters.

The play went through several permutations - and titles (see right) - but a significant issue was always the length of the play. Having five one act plays of substance - all interrelated - meant each play runs to approximately 30 minutes each but, originally, they were even longer.

Behind The Scenes: Tour Timings
The original three hour length of
Roundelay led the Stephen Joseph Theatre to make an unusual decision regarding the tour of the play. Tour venues could present the play as the playwright intended with all five plays or to have a shortened production with the audience only choosing four of the five plays prior to the show; mathematically, this still offered the possibility of 120 different permutations each night.
This was reportedly done without the approval of the playwright.
During rehearsals for Roundelay, the unexpectedly excessive running time of the play led to the playwright to consider making a slight alteration to his original intention by dropping one of the plays - The Agent - as a solution to the extended running time. It was only a brief decision as later that same day - 20 August - he decided to restore the play choosing to edit all the plays instead to reduce the running time. Despite this, the average performance ran for three hours including interval at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

For the Stephen Joseph Theatre's world premiere production, the order of the plays was randomly decided by the audience half-an-hour prior to each night's performance by the drawing of coloured balls in the venue's upper foyer. During the initial 35 performances of the play at the venue (prior to it going on tour), there were only three repeats of previously picked permutations (see
Statistics page for a breakdown of each performance). During its complete original run (including the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its subsequent UK tour), 52 different permutations of the play were performed with 17 performance being a repeat of a previously drawn permutation.

Roundelay picks up on a number of previous Ayckbourn themes such as how our perception of character is changed by what we already know of them (The Norman Conquests and House & Garden) as well as memory and how it affects our lives and how we perceive both ours and other people's lives; Alan's previous play Arrivals & Departures was described as a memory play.

Behind The Scenes: Pot Luck
During the original production, a nightly sweepstakes was run in which every member in the company put a pound in the pot having each chosen a unique order of the plays; the actual order being determined by the random drawing of five balls prior to each performance. If the order of the plays' performance matched any of the actors' choices, they won the sweepstakes and it would start again or the pot would roll over to the next performance.
Roundelay opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on 9 September 2014 with reviews praising the cast and the ambition of the play - as well as the quality of much of the writing - although several reviewers did question the effectiveness of the structure and whether it was a help or hinderance to the play. The play was a success with audiences though.

Unusually for a new Ayckbourn play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, it was not performed in repertory with an Ayckbourn revival. This was due to the theatre having staged a new musical adaptation of the playwright's
The Boy Who Fell Into A Book earlier in the season which had completely different casting requirements to Roundelay.

The original production was followed by an in-the-round tour to the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme and the Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windemere. A short end-stage tour, opened at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, in January 2015. The play would receive its first amateur production in January 2017 by the Alan Ayckbourn-dedicated company, Dick & Lottie, at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.

In 2015,
Roundelay was the main subject of a book by the noted academic Albert-Reiner Glaap with Confusions To Roundelay: Stages In Ayckbourn's Creative Work exploring Roundelay within the context of his play canon and thematic development.

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

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