Making Tracks: History

Making Tracks was Alan Ayckbourn’s second full-length musical collaboration with the composer Paul Todd, following their work together on Suburban Strains in 1980. Set in a recording studio, the play draws on Alan’s experiences as a radio producer for the BBC in Leeds between 1965 and 1970.
Behind The Scenes: True Life Inspiration
Making Tracks is actually directly inspired by one of Alan Ayckbourn's experiences during his career as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC. "I had actually had an experience with a singer, whom I booked while rather drunk one night in a club, and when we'd got her into the studio, she couldn't sing at all!”.
It is a play which is not widely known, predominantly because it has rarely been produced since its London premiere during 1983. This might suggest the play wasn't a success, yet despite a negative critical reaction, it was a huge success in Scarborough where the play was revived the year after its premiere and played to exceptional numbers at Greenwich Theatre. Perhaps because it came between two far more significant plays - Way Upstream and Intimate Exchanges - it became lost. Yet despite having been seen, it has not actually been withdrawn by the playwright unlike his very earliest plays. It seems to be more a case of a play which was unfortunately lost between the cracks and with so many notable plays during the early 1980s, it was not a noticeable loss.

Making Tracks opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, just 11 weeks after Alan's famed canal-based play Way Upstream and could not be more different. This perhaps is why it came into trouble with the critics. Whereas Way Upstream was seen as a definite move forward for the playwright, a technically ambitious piece dealing with wider moral issues - and a perception by critics, and later academics, that it was commenting on the state of the nation - Making Tracks was an altogether lighter and more fun piece. It doesn’t stand up well to dissection, nor was it meant to.

Opening during December 1981, it gives the impression very much of being a piece of light-entertainment for the Christmas season and this was apparently the intention of the playwright, given his description of the piece in a letter to his agent, Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay.

"It's very light and jolly and a sort of pastiche of all show-biz musicals."
Behind The Scenes: Confusions
Making Tracks shares an element in common with one of Alan's most famous works, Confusions. In the latter, the play Between Mouthfuls features a waiter moving between tables in a restaurant and we only hear what the waiter hears - the conversations fades in and out depending on where he is. Alan developed this idea for Making Tracks (as well as being inspired by his actually experience at the BBC). So the speakers / microphones can be 'turned off' so people in the control room can't hear what is going on in the studio and vice versa. It can broadly be seen as a development and refinement of the idea used by Alan in Between Mouthfuls. The audience, of course, hears everything that is said.
The set was quite a complex one, but it did - at least - manage to solve the problem of how to have a live band in the limited space of the in-the-round space. Alan's solution was to have the band live on stage and in-the-round, incorporating them into the action. The band had caused immense problems for Suburban Strains and is a constant problem for any production in-the-round featuring live music (so much so that when the Stephen Joseph Theatre was built, it included a box at the back of 'A' block where a small band can perform live, but off-stage). Alan's solution for the band in Making Tracks though - alongside the demands of the play - did mean the set was larger than the stage space and the 'control box' in the play was built into one of the seating blocks to cope with the limited space, reducing the audience capacity for the production.

Making Tracks did phenomenal business at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round despite a lukewarm reception from critics. It was revived the following year and refined with one of the songs being dropped and alterations made to some of the other numbers. This did equally good business before it transferred to the Greenwich Theatre, London, in 1983.

The decision to transfer
Making Tracks to Greenwich had been motivated in a large part by the enthusiasm of the venue's Artistic Director, Alan Strachan. Alan Ayckbourn's regular London producer Michael Codron showed interest in being involved in the transfer (which was not unusual, he had been involved in the Greenwich productions of The Norman Conquests and Season's Greetings, both of which he had then transferred to the West End). However, Alan eventually decided to go it alone by bringing the Scarborough company to Greenwich Theatre for a five-week run with no plans to take it further. Alan had doubts about how this would affect the future of the play, but he was not altogether certain this was the most commercial of plays anyway and felt it would probably not succeed in the West End. His decision to take his own company to Greenwich on his own terms was also another step in trying to deal with the London transfers as he was very disaffected with the West End experience by this time.

The play opened on 14 March 1983 at Greenwich Theatre and the critics, by and large, mauled the piece; in all likelihood killing off any possibility of it going into the West End anyway. However, the audiences adored it and it reportedly played to an extraordinary 97% capacity audience during its run.

Making Tracks was recorded and sold as an original cast recording on cassette at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - although it is now a very rare piece of Ayckbourn memorabilia. A demo was the first thing to be recorded in - as described a letter to his producer Michael Codron from Alan Ayckbourn - "my new penthouse studio(!)" in his house on a new 8 track recorder. Although the studio no longer exists - Alan still creates his own sound plots but the recording studio has been replaced by a Mac - the former studio is now the office of his Archivist and where this page was written.

There have been few productions of
Making Tracks since 1983, although the playwright confirmed during 2020 that Making Tracks has not been withdrawn and is available for production. The play has also never been published - a rarity by this stage of Alan’s career. It was also his last full-length collaboration with Paul Todd, although they would continue writing revues together until 1986.

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