Roundelay: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Roundelay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2014. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author.

(by Dominic Maxwell)
Alan Ayckbourn’s 78th play is entertaining and daring and a missed opportunity. It makes you sigh admiringly at its construction, sigh sadly as characters mourn their lost youth and faded dreams, sigh impatiently at the ponderous or improbable moments where brilliance slips through its fingers.
Formally, it’s like nothing else. There are 120 ways of seeing
Roundelay, which is made up of five interrelated playlets whose running order is decided at random on the night by audience members.
Each scene makes sense on its own. Each is enhanced by the way it fits into the bigger picture. A thug pimping a prostitute to a judge in one scene is menacing a theatrical agent in another. That agent signs up a naïve 16-year-old girl in one scene who reappears in school uniform in the office of a lascivious Tory MP in another. Links and echoes abound, sometimes setting up another scene, sometimes explaining its mysteries.
For all Ayckbourn’s comic gifts,
Roundelay’s flat-out comedy moments are not its finest. The Politician features a case of mistaken identities but fails to make old ingredients come up fresh. The Agent has a great punchline but an unlikely set-up. It’s interesting, but it’s not convincing.
Roundelay scores is in its depiction of memories polluting the present. The Judge features an old man trying to recreate his lost youth with a prostitute. Ayckbourn makes a tired set-up truly touching by giving her busted dreams of her own.
The Novelist, set in the judge’s leaky mansion, is full of loss and longing and the twists of a gothic short story. The Star is a painful depiction of a cleric reuniting with his jaded first love, yet it’s marred by the odd line - “once I lost the baby it was like the bond was broken” - that should not have made it through quality control.
At three hours including interval, the evening needs a final edit, but the cast of eight are consistently strong. Russell Dixon as the grouchy judge, Richard Stacey as the naïve cleric, and Sophie Roberts as the hardened agent all ensure that archetypal characters feel new.
There are moments of Ayckbourn at his best here, pressed up against moments that need sharpening.
(The Times, 11 September 2014)

Roundelay (by Steve Pratt)
For his 78th play in his 75th birthday year Alan Ayckbourn delivers five short plays, designed to be performed in any order. Audience members pull coloured balls from a hat in the bar shortly before each performance to decide the running order.
As there are a possible 120 permutations for the plays -
The Politician, The Novelist, The Judge, The Star and The Agent - the likelihood is that no two performances will be the same.
In other less experienced hands this might have been just a gimmick but Ayckbourn ensures this lives up to his description of the production as “this unique adventure in live theatre”.
The sheer variety of genres in which the five plays are written, from out-and-out farce of mistaken identity to a strange ghost story, can be unsettling and the links between the five pieces sometimes a little blurred. But there’s a lot to like.
As well as keeping stage management on their toes with five scene changes - swiftly and skilfully executed, earning a round of applause each time -
Roundelay offers the actors the chance to display their versatility.
Krystle Hylton is a real find as sassy Roz, a mouthy, would-be performer who rebels against appearing in a community centre production of
The Mikado and then sends a politician into a panic over a possible scandal.
Russell Dixon and Brooke Kinsella are touching as the judge and the 'actress', brought together for a bizarre evening of champagne and dressing up to jog the old boy’s memories of his late wife. While, as theatrical agent Gale, Sophie Roberts convincingly moves from eyeing up talent to a surprise reunion with a teenage lover turned vicar to a brutal brush with gangster types.
The five plays may be short but Ayckbourn packs each of them with layers of humour and drama. All human life is here.
Verdict: Ayckbourn’s 78th play is a mixed bag of five short plays performed in random order and offering something for everyone.

(The Stage - online, 10 September 2014)

Roundelay: Both magnificent and a disappointment
(by Claire Brennan)
Alan Ayckbourn’s experimental playlets are moving and hilarious but their fragmentary nature often hobbles the drama
The title means “a circle dance” and this is what these five little plays, with their interlocking characters, do. Every night the running order is decided by a pre-show lottery - a potential 120 combinations. It’s so clever my head reels.
Alan Ayckbourn (writer and director) is the undisputed master of ingenuities such as this (think of
The Norman Conquests - a trilogy showing the same occasion from the perspective of three different locations; Intimate Exchanges - with its 16 possible endings; House and Garden - with actors running between two different stages and audiences). His structures offer more than just hilarious, clever-clogs patterning. They act as grids against which situations and characters stand out clearly and they invite audiences to join in their games as co-creators. Ayckbourn does not attempt to suspend our disbelief; rather, he sends it ricocheting around multiple levels of reality and unreality.
He certainly does that here. Each playlet explores ways that characters accept, misconstrue, ignore or deny one another’s (un)realities (even God plays a part - maybe). An eight-strong cast negotiates these complexities sure-footedly (particularly noteworthy is Krystle Hylton’s teenager - crackling with in-yer-face energy yet raw-nerved in emotion).
In its theatricality, this is a tour de force. But, unusually for Ayckbourn, the form and content don’t work together. Fragmentation lumbers dialogue with a burden of information that hobbles the drama. Some of the material is disturbing - convolutions of plotting seem to shirk the challenges it poses. Still funny, still moving and intriguing, it is both magnificent and a disappointment.
(The Observer, 14 September 2014)

Roundelay (By Ron Simpson)
Marking his 75th birthday, the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's latest work proves his continued ability to delight and amaze.
In a way, this can only be a sort of provisional review of
Roundelay. The full richness of the work (or lack of richness - it's difficult to tell from one performance) can be gauged only by seeing more of the variations: the number of possibilities far exceeds the number of performances!
For Alan Ayckbourn is up to his tricks again! Five plays are performed in random order - chosen by members of the audience before the start. All plays interconnect, but in a loosely overlapping way. Typically a character might be in two of the plays, but in different company so that an ingenious web of circumstance links all the characters and their stories, though none are aware of all the others! I am reluctant to hint at the plot(s) lest I spoil surprises: suffice it to say that a retired judge, an MP, an aspiring teenaged stage star, a call girl, a self-published novelist, a would-be theatrical agent, a low-level hoodlum and a vicar play their parts.
Since Mr. A delights in amazing us, he will probably be pleased that my first thoughts in this review took the form of questions. How differently would we interpret a play if we had seen it after, rather than before, another? Does the same incident work better as irony or drama? More specifically, did
The Star have more emotional depth than the others because it came fourth and built on events and characters already seen or simply because it focussed on Russ, the most fully rounded of the characters? Would it have seemed different if we had already seen the farcically death-defying scene of another principal?
Roundelay impresses as the work of a formidably adventurous playwright, not content with cosy slipperdom in his 78th play, but it is not his most theatrically successful work. The shifts in tone are typical Ayckbourn: generally the plays are fairly realistic, but we have a sudden supernatural episode, and he can switch from pathos to farce and back with ease. However, the farce of The Politician is more sit-com predictable than is usual with Ayckbourn.
The main problem is that
Roundelay is too long, just over 3 hours including a 100-minute first half. The fact that the order is random makes for more exposition than is usual - the playwright never knows what the audience has been told.
Richard Stacey excels as a do-gooding vicar who is anything but the typical do-gooder; Krystle Hylton produces a tour de force of mammoth sulks and over-the-top theatricality; Nigel Hastings makes the most of two one-play-only caricatures; but Ayckbourn gets good performances from all the cast of eight. The music is delightful and the colour-coded sets and scene changes fit the sly wit of the evening.
(, 10 September 2014)

Roundelay (by Sue Wilkinson)
Roundelay can mean a circle dance - and Alan Ayckbourn definitely leads his audience on a merry one.
From the picking of the order of the five plays from a bag of labelled balls by members of the audience in the bar to the final bow - this is a unique theatre experience.
Ayckbourn has always liked a ‘gimmick’ - to play with his audiences’ expectations of live theatre - and here he tests those to the limit. Not that it’s a chore: it is in fact a joy.
There are five plays and we saw them in this order:
The Judge, The Novelist, The Politician, The Star and The Agent.
They were by turns poignant, hilarious, thought-provoking, farcical, thrilling, frightening and at least one had a hint of horror. One is the story of an old man hiring a call girl to relive the earliest days of love with his dead wife, one is about a wannabe reality star and another about a woman in debt.
There are obvious links between some of them and in others the associations are more tenuous.
Ambition, love, loss, regret, misunderstanding, misanthropy and marriage are all familiar Ayckbourn themes running through them – and, this time, memory, memories and reminiscences.
The order you see them in will determine, I imagine, the overall experience and mood - a clever way of ensuring some will see
Roundelay again and again as there are 120 possible permutations.
The company of actors are outstanding - with Brooke Kinsella as the tart with a heart, Nigel Hastings as an obsequious politician and timid neighbour, Sophie Roberts as the agent and Krystle Hylton as the wannabe star Rox particularly good.
A new Ayckbourn is always an event and this, his 78th new play in his 75th birthday year, is no exception. It is simply brilliant.
(The Scarborough News, 12 September 2014)

Roundelay (by Charles Hutchinson)
Roundelay is Alan Ayckbourn's 78th play and his 79th, 80th, 81st and 82nd play too. Sort of.
To mark his 75th birthday year, he has written five short, interconnected plays that can be played in any order, some with shared characters or overlapping narratives, some that are sequels or preludes of others.
The order is decided by five audience members each picking out a title around half an hour before each performance, at which point the cast is informed of the configuration. Writer / director Ayckbourn would like this deadline to become even closer to the starting time, the more his cast and crew becomes familiar with the requirements.
Originally, it was calculated there were 120 possibilities as to the order, but already two nights have followed the same pattern. Nevertheless, the air of unpredictability that surrounds each show is another Ayckbourn innovation to add to the likes of
House and Garden, where two plays are performed simultaneously in different auditoria, and Intimate Exchanges, a series of eight plays, each with two potential endings.
Roundelay is in some ways an extension of last summer's Farcicals, a brace of interlinked Ayckbourn lunchtime theatre shows, individually called Chloë With Love and The Kidderminster Affair, that could be seen separately in the bar or together in the McCarthy.
The intention must be that they should have a greater accumulative impact, the more the plays stack up, especially given the breadth of subjects they cover, but they are not substantial works by Ayckbourn's remarkable standards.
This is partly because
Roundelay is as much about style as it is about content. He calls the plays "a confectionery assortment", each with differing colours and flavours, each being given a colour code for Michael Holt's set and costume designs that includes the T-shirts worn by the crew as they move the furniture into place for each play. Those T-shirts also carry the name of each play to denote which is coming next.
Black, for example, is the colour (or technically shade, before pedants write in) for a gothic horror tale,
The Novelist, while blue is chosen for The Politician, the story of misbehaving Tory Leo Axminster (Nigel Hastings) in a farce that echoes Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard.
On press night, the order was
The Judge (colour, red), The Novelist and The Politician in the first half; The Star (yellow) and The Agent in the second. That meant Russell Dixon's cantankerous old judge, Tom, appeared in the first two, one a study of fading and failing memories, the other a throwback to Tales Of The Unexpected, which for all their differences, somewhat deadened the impact of the random order.
A judge and an agency girl (Brooke Kinsella); a deceitful politician and a call girl; a wannabe theatre starlet (Krystle Hylton) and an agent (Sophie Roberts); a spinster novelist (Alexandra Mathie); a thug collecting debts(Leigh Symonds); a vicar (the outstanding Richard Stacey) at odds with his faith; all manner of life is here and plenty of shards of laughter too. However, five plays don't add up to one of Ayckbourn's best plays.
(The Press, 13 September 2014)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.