Alan Ayckbourn’s Roundelay brings random order to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

PUBLISHED: 08:49 07 January 2015 | UPDATED: 13:32 07 January 2015

Sir Alan Ayckbourn (Photo: Andrew Higgins/Johnston Press)

Sir Alan Ayckbourn (Photo: Andrew Higgins/Johnston Press)

c2012 all rights reserved Johnston Press/Andrew Higgins

One of the nation’s greatest living playwrights, Alan Ayckbourn is keeping people guessing to the last with his latest offering – even the actors. Here he explains his new play, Roundelay, which promises to be a “unique adventure in live theatre” and heads to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre this month

So, what is your 78th play all about?

Roundelay comprises five short plays, which are written to be performed in any order. They are all quite varied, a bit like a box of chocolates – there’s everything from a dark caramel to a soft coffee cream! The plays have overlapping characters, several of which are in more than one play. The pieces are all related and sometimes elements of plot from one spill over into another. The fun things about Roundelay are the little reference points from one piece to another. It may be a reference you won’t get if you haven’t seen the other play yet or then again, equally, you’ll know what they’re referring to if you have seen the other play; it all depends. Each play in a sense illuminates the others. I think of them like a circle of mirrors which, depending on the angle you stand, you’ll see different aspects and reflections.


What was the appeal of writing a play with a random structure?

I’m intrigued by the thought of how we may perceive an evening which will never be quite the same. Indeed, in a sense that is true of all theatre, isn’t it? But, in this case, it will differ radically and there are 120 different possibilities in which the order of events might happen. As I say, the Roundelay plays have no order and, depending on how you see them, the evening can finish on a dying fall or a comic climax. Each play has a beginning and an ending but apart from that they just dovetail into each other.


How will that work in practice?

I’d like the audience to be involved. All the plays are known by a different colour - which definitely ensures they don’t have any order. What I would like is for someone to draw a series of coloured ping-pong balls randomly out of a hat in the bar before the show. Then, depending on what’s been picked, we’ll call down to the Green Room to tell the cast and stage management what that particular night’s running order will be. In a sense the actors will be the last ones to know.


So, in theory, no evening during the run will be exactly the same?

Indeed. The other appeal, for me at least, is that those who are determined to impose an order on things won’t be able to do so. In the past, I’ve often been amused when people come up to me having seen, for instance, The Norman Conquests or Intimate Exchanges and say, “I did enjoy them, though I’m afraid I did see them in the wrong order.” Because there’s really no order, you see, they just are. But then a lot of people when they see randomness they interpret this as disorder and they have an irresistible urge to tidy things up. In the case of Roundelay, I think there are enough potential choices to make it genuinely random. 120 possibilities should ensure there is little chance of repetition.


What was your inspiration?

The graphic novel Building Stories by Chris Ware was one of my inspirations. You have this graphic novel where you’re invited to just open the box and randomly select a piece of paper. There’s nobody there to say this is page one. You make your own story by choosing which pieces in the box you want to read next. I liked that idea.


It also shares a little in common with your most recent success, Arrivals & Departures, in touching on memory…

Memory is interesting to me and it’s a theme which pervades Roundelay. What we remember, how we remember, what we don’t remember. It’s all about memories and what we choose to share and what we don’t choose to share. What we choose to forget is another point. The rose-coloured spectacles we put on in order to remember something. The romanticism we use to say, ‘Do you remember those good old days?’ which probably weren’t quite so wonderful as we would like to remember. There is an echo not only of Arrivals & Departures but also of some of my older characters right back to Colin in Absent Friends.


Would it be fair to say this play has pushed you in a new directions again?

I’m always looking for something that makes an evening just that little bit different without departing entirely from the old basic skills. You need to keep challenging yourself. I think this show does that for me.


• Roundelay, from Wednesday January 21 to Saturday January 31, at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. Book your tickets by calling the box office on 01483 440000 or by visiting


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