Joking Apart - Forty Years On
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
Forty years is a goodly portion of a person’s life. It’s the length of time that has elapsed between Alan Ayckbourn writing Joking Apart and now reviving it in the town where it premiered.
The author describes the play, which he last revived here in 2002, as one of his ‘specials’, a particular favourite – and it is easy to see why.
It’s a wholly intriguing work, one which has been called a ‘light tragedy’ rather than a light comedy. I seem to remember laughing uproariously when I first saw it years ago. This time my response was more measured, more the knowing smile and nod of approval. I think I now see more of the play’s hidden depths. The question the playwright is apparently posing is this: do privileged people both attract lesser lights and repulse them at the same time. I didn’t get that in my green youth.
Undoubtedly, the satire of middle class manners, bearing, deportment, call it what you will, the sort of polite affectations that distinguish this social stratum, has stood up remarkably well given the immense social changes during the period. It still works on a histrionic level, the conversational hiatuses, the repetitions, the small talk covering up the tensions all seeming naturalistic enough. And that lurking jealousy of anybody who is more gifted or successful – that other classes seem to have much less of – is still there, and devastating to behold.
The storyline spans twelve years, from Bonfire Night, 1966, to a balmy August evening in 1978. Richard (Laurence Pears) and Anthea (Frances Marshall) are genial hosts – too good to be true, in fact – opening up their extensive garden for others to enjoy the fireworks. It’s an apparently spontaneous gathering, including the newly arrived vicar Hugh (James Baughan) and his timid wife Louise (Louise Shuttleworth). A colleague Brian (Richard Stacey) is here, too, with his latest girlfriend who has intuited that he is really in love with Anthea. This is perhaps the first of many tensions and our first evidence of the corrosive effect of jealousy. Brian is a morose and taciturn individual and the other people, being good eggs, have to tiptoe round him.
Also at the party is Richard’s senior partner, Sven, and his wife, Olive (Liz Jadav). Not the least of Ayckbourn’s achievements is to have created a character worthy of having a syndrome named after him. We thought the complex Sven, a man with many complexes, was Swedish but it turns out he’s Finnish. No matter. He describes himself as objective but in fact he’s a sort of bragging pessimist, begging to differ all the time, swinging from self-affirmation to a sense of abject injured merit. Actually, we warm to him far more than the other less colourful characters. In a way he deserves his own play. He is the standout character, played by the outstanding Leigh Symonds.
It has to be said that Hugh is little more than a caricature of the young clergyman, even though his subsequent behaviour appears to be untypical of his kind, if not wildly improbable. His function, one assumes, is to act as a foil, to show the other characters’ failings, their scarcely disguised envy of the guys with the big house, big garden, tennis court, bright kids.
With the passage of time, these characters seem to be orbiting their perfect hosts, pulled to them, under their power, unable to break away, even though it is habit rather than friendship that keeps them going round – anticlockwise! The hard-working Naomi Petersen plays all of Brian’s disaffected girlfriends and, also, Debbie, the eighteen-year-old daughter. It is the young girl at her coming of age party who has the insight to see that all her parents’ friends are odd, peculiar, not right somehow, setting us the question: who is at fault?
A classic ensemble play, there is no one actor who dominates, perhaps Sven part, or becomes for us the central consciousness. As such special praise for individuals isn’t really the thing. Suffice it to say it is a very strong cast and, and privileged with the author’s own resourceful direction, they add layers of subtlety to what had once seemed (to me, at least) simply a comedy of good manners begetting bad manners. Indeed, the play emerges as having an unusual universality which means they may still be reviving it in another forty years.
It was a night of some poignancy, particularly for those few in the audience who had seen it first time round. The exquisite delicacy of the thing was that we were there to celebrate the play’s ruby anniversary – but this was in ironic conflict with our own mutability. Moreover, the remorseless passage of time the play telescopes now at this remove mirrors our own over the longer period. Truly, joking apart, the fireworks come early in life and what follows is all smoke and mirrors. The ending leaves us thinking.
Joking Apart runs from 26 July to 4 October, at the SJT, Scarborough.
Joking Apart - Forty Years On, 2nd August 2018, 8:45 AM