Improbable Fiction: History

In 2005, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough celebrated its 50th anniversary and Alan Ayckbourn decided to mark it with a light-hearted celebration of the power of the imagination called Improbable Fiction.

The play’s title is taken from Shakespeare ("If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." -
Twelfth Night, Act III, scene 4) and sums up the play perfectly. Improbable Fiction is intentionally one of Alan Ayckbourn’s lighter plays and was inspired by Alan giving a talk to a writers’ circle. During the talk, it became obvious that those attending had probably never written anything in their lives! The group was more a social circle, rather than a writing circle.
Behind The Scenes: The Circle
Alan's initial concept for the play was markedly different to the finished play and was entitled The Circle. It centred on a writing groups whose membership had dwindled to just five members - Carla, Glynis, Tilly, Morton and Hugo. They are then joined by a good looking, apparently single man called Ben who attracts interest from all the women.
Although Alan had initially thought of calling the play, The Circle, by the time of writing the title had changed to Improbable Fiction and the premise had changed considerably - possibly as a result of writing something to mark the SJT's 50th anniversary. It centred on Pendon Writers’ Circle and what happens when their imaginations are unleashed thanks to the presence of a rather ordinary girl who nonetheless holds a mysterious allure for the writers.

Improbable Fiction is arguably the first of Alan’s 'adult' plays to be directly inspired by one of his family plays. Alan has written several plays for younger audiences which are regarded as companion pieces to his ‘adult’ plays such as Woman In Mind and Invisible Friends. Here though, the inspiration seems to come from his 1998 family play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book and to a lesser extent, My Very Own Story. In the former play, the protagonists find themselves lost in different genres of fiction, much as the second act of Improbable Fiction sees the bemused Arnold moving between the differing genres of the writers’ circle’s imaginations. Whether The Boy Who Fell Into A Book was a direct inspiration is not known, but Improbable Fiction seems obviously inspired by the flights of fantasy Alan has written for young people, where the extraordinary intrudes upon the ordinary existence of its characters.

Structurally the play is unusual for Alan. In the preceding year, Alan had written the highly acclaimed
Private Fears In Public Places which included numerous very short scenes with many changes of location. For Improbable Fiction, Alan took the opposite track. The entire play is set in the same location and the first act consists of just one scene. It is actually a quite leisurely first act, which includes an excruciatingly painful tea-serving sequence (arguably this acts as the crux of the play as the writers become fascinated by the young girl, Ilsa, who silently and torturously delivers individual cups of tea to each of the members). However, the first act’s pace belies the fact that it is not only getting all the necessary exposition out of the way, but it is setting up a multitude of gags which will come thick and fast in the second act. As such Act 1 is the calm before the storm, as the quick-moving and quick-changing action of Act 2 barely stops for a moment and constantly throws the audience off-balance switching between genres and offering more and more improbable, but highly entertaining, twists.
Behind The Scenes: Important Considerations
As noted in the article, reviews of the initial tour of Improbable Fiction did not match those of what was essentially the same production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The criticism largely being it was too lightweight a piece, which was seen as being acceptable within the context of the SJT's 50th anniversary celebrations bit, oddly, not out of that context. It should be noted that the author's intention was to always create a light piece which celebrated theatre and he strongly feels that not every play has to have depth or meaning! Sometimes it is more than enough just to entertain an audience for two hours. Fortunately, the popularity of the play subsequently, particularly with amateur companies, has emphasised what Alan thinks is an important part of Improbable Fiction: that theatre should primarily entertain its audiences - which, of course, is not necessarily as easy as it sounds.
The second act is also a satire on various literary genres with parodies of '30s detective fiction, Jane Austen style bodice-rippers and children’s fiction. The conspiracy laden stories of Clem owing more to television and film though, with nods to the likes of The X Files, Alien and The Matrix.

Although the play features a single set, it proved to be an incredibly challenging production not least for the number of quick period costume changes and the need to create props such as a giant alien egg / walnut and a squirrel costume. Alan Ayckbourn has frequently joked that one of the stars of the original production of
Improbable Fiction was never actually seen on stage. Master Carpenter Frank Matthews was responsible for building the majority of the props which notably included a sideboard; this featured a modern telephone which would change to a vintage 'candlestick' phone during the relevant scenes. When Frank retired in 2012, Alan noted his writing in Improbable Fiction had played second-fiddle to Frank's sideboard with audiences!

The play opened in May 2005 and was warmly received by audiences. Critics generally got into the spirit of things too, with the vast majority taking the play for what it was: an entertaining and light celebration for the 50th anniversary. One can’t help but feel that the odd dissenting voice looking for intellectual depth largely missed the point of the exercise and must have wondered why the audiences were enjoying themselves so much.

In 2006, Alan adapted the play for end-stage production and did a short national tour of the play. It is interesting at this point, taken out of context of the 50th anniversary, that the national critics were much harsher on the play and were critical of the perceived lightweight nature of the piece. However, the local critics were much more positive and audiences were excellent.

Improbable Fiction was published by Samuel French in 2007 and has proved to be exceptionally popular with amateur companies ever since; it stands as one of the most performed of Alan Ayckbourn's post-2000 plays by the amateur community.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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