DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Joking Apart – SJT, Scarborough

Writer & Director: Alan Ayckbourn

Designer: Michael Holt

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

As so often in recent years, the Summer season at Scarborough means two Ayckbourn plays: one new (Better Off Dead opens in September) and one revival. Joking Apart, initially performed 40 years ago, is variously described in the programme as one of Ayckbourn’s favourite plays and one of the very few of his works to have failed in London. These two comments are not as contradictory as they might appear.

In Joking Apart the thunderclouds are gathering over Ayckbourn’s suburban garden and it is undoubtedly a dark play, but paradoxically also a light play – in terms of weight, not shade. Ayckbourn himself quotes approvingly the comment that it is “a light tragedy”. But, whereas most tragedies build to a dramatic conclusion, this potters on through 12 years (four scenes at four-year intervals) and the audience has to do the work on how lives have fallen apart and why and, even, whether it matters. So it must have been a difficult play for a West End audience to get a handle on whilst at the same time appealing to the author’s love of the quirky and oblique. 

In part, the play grew from a challenge to Ayckbourn to write about happy people. Richard and Anthea, finding contentment together after early divorce/separation from their partners, are undoubtedly happy – and good, concerned and successful. From bounding around at a November 5th bonfire in their mid-20s, to presiding benignly over Anthea’s beautiful and totally untroubled daughter’s 18th birthday celebrations 12 years later, they radiate happiness and delight in helping their neighbours.

And that’s where the trouble starts. Totally inadvertently they take over other people’s lives. Their house, with its delightful garden, used to be the vicarage, but Church economies led to its sale and the building of a smaller vicarage in a small corner of the garden. When the new vicar Hugh and his wife Louise join in the Guy Fawkes celebrations, Richard, with gleeful energy, sets about destroying the fence between the gardens so they can share the original vicarage garden. Louise, timid and uncertain, is appalled and terrified, Hugh is drawn irrevocably into the circle of Richard and Anthea.

With Sven, Richard’s business partner, it’s a similar story. Sven is a man of considerable self-esteem (it is explained early on that he is never wrong, even when he is wrong), but Richard’s habit of taking on all the work – very successfully, too – reduces him to a shadow of his former self. Brian, friend and employee, has something of the same problem but is mainly troubled by his gloomily dog-like devotion to Anthea whom he regards Richard as having stolen from him. This no doubt explains the series of unsuitable girlfriends he brings along, inadequate Anthea substitutes.

So there we are at the end, with Richard and Anthea as happy and as well-intentioned as ever, doing their duty by helping those less fortunate than themselves and ruining their lives in the process. Isn’t that just how it is?

Michael Holt supplies a typically idyllic garden setting, with the tennis court where Sven’s humiliation by kindness takes place, and Ayckbourn’s direction, as always, has an apparently effortless precision. Laurence Pears and Frances Marshall radiate health, goodness and happiness as the “ideal” couple at the centre. Leigh Symonds’ Sven is a tour de force of literal correctness and (ultimately crumbling) self-satisfaction. Without any obvious ageing Jamie Baughan (Hugh), Louise Shuttleworth (Louise), Liz Jadav (Sven’s wife) and Richard Stacey (Brian) reflect the passing years and their gradual loss of identity convincingly and often amusingly, while Naomi Petersen captures the essence of Brian’s various girlfriends (plus Anthea’s daughter) in posture, movement and very few, though sometimes explosive, words.

Runs until October 4, 2018, in repertoire | Image: Contributed

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Quirky and oblique

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