Written by Simon Murgatroyd
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a big fan of Dick & Lottie and their continued adventures into the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. 2017 marks a particularly adventurous year for the company dedicated as it is to the plays of ‘chance’; marking what will be the first time a single company has ever produced all of Alan’s ‘chance’ plays in one season. It’s an ambitious challenge not least as all of the plays are – to some extent – in the laps of the gods. Actors are going to have to rehearse multiple or amended scenes to allow for therandom permutations of the plays in question and also deal with the fact they’re never quite going to know how each evening is going to turn out. I’m sure they’ll be thanking Alan Ayckbourn for that.The year kicks off with Roundelay and here’s a bit of an advance tip. You need to arrive early for the drawing of the balls in the theatre foyer prior to each performance. This, in case you are wondering, is not some archaic Dick & Lottie pre-show ritual or a visitby the National Lottery, but an integral part of the performance. It is a means by which – in all probability – none of the performances of Roundelay will be the same with the early arrivals to the theatre being given the chance to draw balls determining the order of each performance’s scenes. To explain, Roundelay consists of five short, loosely related plays; the order they are performed is determined by the lottery draw. So there’s 120 possible combinations of five plays and very little chance any one will be repeated during the week. For the company, this moment twenty minutes before the show will determine who’s first on and how the evening will progress – melancholy to farce? Happiness to chills? Who knows.For the audience, the drawing of the ball will affect just how they perceive the characters and events and how they all inter-relate.It’s all part of Alan Ayckbourn’s repeated mantra about celebrating what makes theatre unique.“I’ve always tried to emphasise the fact that theatre is live. If that means two people tossing a coin to decide which way they’re going – well it keeps the actors’ adrenaline flowing and makes the audience think, ‘Hey, this play really is live!’ The coin toss refers to Alan’s first ‘chance’ play and the second in Dick & Lottie’s season with Sisterly Feelings, which the playwright wrote in 1979. This radical idea saw every performance begin the same way before a coin was flipped at the end of the first scene determining which one of two second scenes would be performed. The actors themselves then chose between a choice of two third scenes before the play culminated in a common final scene. Sisterly Feelings made explicit that theatre is spontaneous and unpredictable – here given emphasis by the coin toss and which, famously, led to a totally unexpected incident at the first performance.
“The historic moment arrived when the coin would be tossed and the fate of the evening decided. The actor in question tossed the coin. It landed, would you believe, on edge, a chance in a million, and rolled like a thing possessed offstage into the wings. The actors, who hadn’t much alternative, sheepishly followed it. Thus theatre history was made off-stage and out of sight of everyone.”Of course, that presumes the members of the company do not cheat as proved to be the case with the National Theatre’s production. There the actors Michael Gambon and Stephen Moore favoured a certain scene over the other – presumably they had less to do int it! As a result, they split two 50pence coins in half and glued the two ‘heads’ together, so – when they wished – they could rig the coin toss. At the end of the National Theatre’s run, Alan was presented the coin by Gambon and was reportedly not best pleased with the revelation. Intriguingly, the original idea for Sisterly Feelings was far more complex with notes in the Ayckbourn Archive showing a play with a common opening scene leading to a choice of second scenes, which each had a choice of third scenes and so on. If this sounds familiar, it was later repurposed in 1982 for Intimate Exchanges. Now that epic play cycle is not part of the ‘chance’ season’ because it doesn’t involve chance. Although Intimate Exchanges deals with the idea of how our decisions can affect and change life, the play itself is not random as the evening’s many choices are made in advance. This is not to say it couldn’t be random but it would be a nightmare for any but the most courageous of stage managers and not what the author originally intended. The final ‘chance’ play – and which Dick & Lottie will close the year with – is It Could Be Any One Of Us, which premiered in 1983. This was a whodunnit but no simple thriller as each night one of three people could be the evening’s murderer; the choice of protagonist decided in a card game which then affected the rest of the play.“The murderer is completely random and chosen by the drawing of a certain card during a game in the first scene. That character assumes the role of the murderer for that evening and the text is subtly altered by the murderer, who imparts bits of dialogue which will give the audience the chance to spot the guilty party.”The main issue with this, from a writer’s perspective, was Alan had to make every character a potential homicidal maniac, which perhaps slightly stretches credibility! However, it does solve the problem of how once you’ve seen a whodunnit, you always know who the murderer is. Not this time! Of course, whilst all these plays feature the element of ‘chance’, the important thing is less that but the vital element which is just emphasised in these plays – and which Alan Ayckbourn talked about at the start of the article. Every performance is different in the theatre, no matter what play we choose to see. The words may be the same, but every performance is subtly affected by the actors and audience. There is a perpetual element of unpredictability about theatre because it is live and immediate. This is what Roundelay emphasises and offers theatre-goers and what – as Alan notes – makes every trip to the theatre so exciting.
“What I’ve always thought about live theatre is that it’s live in reality. The only thing we canreally offer that TV or films can’t do is the spontaneity.”
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s archivist and administrator of his official website www.alanayckbourn.net.