Joking Apart
by Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn - Joking Apart

BBC Radio 3

Broadcast: Friday 9th February 1990 @ 9:00 p.m.

"Joking Apart" is set in Richard and Anthea's garden over twelve years on bonfire night, a summer tennis party, boxing day and their daughter Debbie's 18th birthday.

Richard and Anthea are a perfect unmarried couple, to whom everything comes very easily and whose genuine generosity, success and sensitivity seem to reflect badly on those around them. Over the 12 years we see Richard's business partner Sven and his wife, Olive, become increasingly depressed at the ease of Richard's success, despite Sven working so hard he eventually has a heart attack which drives him to deep bitterness at the unfairness of life. Brian, an employee, has a constant string of young girlfriends, all of whom are substitutes for Anthea, whom he has been obsessed with since he gave her shelter after the break up of her first marriage. Finally, there are the new neighbours, the vicar Hugh and his wife Louise.

After Richard tears down the garden fence to make a larger communal garden for Hugh, the vicar misinterprets some interest in him from Anthea as a sign of love and he becomes possessed by the belief he is married to the wrong woman. His declaration of his love for Anthea leaves her genuinely confounded and helps drive Louise, combined with her inability to raise or communicate with her son, into manic depression. All are left poorer people by their relationship with Richard and Anthea, who are left unaware that anything is wrong in their perfect world.

"Joking Apart" was first performed on stage at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, on 11th January 1978.

With Pam Ferris [Anthea], Malcolm Raeburn [Richard], Nigel Anthony [Sven], Pam Buckle [Olive], Peter Linford [Hugh], Karen Drury [Louise], John Branwell [Brian], Robyn Brunskill [Melody / Mandy / Mo / Debbie], and Elizabeth Lindsay [The Children].

Directed by Michael Fox (a BBC Northwest Production)

Re-broadcast on Monday 13th December 1993 @ 7:45 p.m. on BBC Radio 4

95 min.


Joking Apart (1978)

Introduction To Joking Apart

Of the plays he has written, Joking Apart is purportedly one of Alan Ayckbourn’s favourites. It is not hard to see why: the story of a perfect couple and the unhappy way this reflects on the relationships around them is, arguably, a play with themes that will always be relevant. It is a play which seems to have become more appreciated with age.

The third of Alan’s ‘winter’ plays, written during the Christmas period in Scarborough, it had none of the problems which had affected the writing of his previous play Ten Times Table. Indeed as far as the play goes, it seems to have had a very simple conception and realisation.

It was inspired by someone asking Alan why he never wrote plays about happy couples; of course the obvious answer is there is no drama in happiness and contentment. However, the idea caught Alan’s imagination and he began to wonder if there was a play in the idea of a happy couple who act as a catalyst for the unhappiness and the failings of the couples around them. The perfection of Richard and Anthea’s relationship merely serves to highlight the imperfections of everyone else’s relationships.

The play was not only unusual for its portrayal of a contented couple, but also of its time-span. It is spread over twelve years allowing the playwright the luxury of showing these relationships in the long-term and the effects of actions over time. It is rare for Alan to set any plays over such a prolonged period of time and alone makes the play interesting.

"Joking Apart" opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in January 1978 on a set complete with real grass and was a resounding success. The Scarborough audience seems to have taken to Alan’s darker winter plays very quickly, giving them a validation and success which was largely not repeated in the West End productions. Michael Codron produced the play in London at the Globe Theatre with Alan directing the play. The cast included Christopher Casenove and Alison Steadman with Robert Austin reprising the role of Sven he had played in Scarborough. The play was a moderate success and jointly won the Plays And Players Award for Best Comedy. Alan has said, in subsequent interviews, he believes a large part of its lack of success in London was the play did not transfer well to the proscenium arch. Critics such as Michael Billington have proposed the problem was more with the London audience, which was still not willing to accept an evening of Ayckbourn as anything but light comedy and laughter and had not as readily accepted the darker turn of his work as much as the Scarborough audience had.

The play was adapted for the Radio by the BBC and was successfully revived by Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2002.

Joking Apart Programme Note

“Why don’t you,” a woman once enquired of me angrily, “ever write a play about a happy couple?”

I thought about this for a month or so. Why didn’t I? Happy couples are a joy to behold. They make life worth living for those of us around them. It is the warming sunlight of their happiness which illuminates the dark corners of our lives. They lift our spirits with their love song. They lighten our hearts with their secret smiles and tender whispers. They are also, it has to be said, in dramatic terms very irritating and not a little boring.

Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that Shakespeare never cared to detail a single happy marriage in his entire play cycle. (The nearest, I think, are the Macbeths and even that relationship was somewhat cut off in its prime). No, happy smiling couples gazing lovingly into each others’ eyes are not good dramatic fodder. Drama, after all, thrives on conflict. It delights in flying plates, slamming doors, raised voices and even the occasional dose of poison. An audience is generally happier leaving a theatre declaring “Well I thought our marriage was in trouble, but….”

Yet the notion of writing about an ideal, balanced happy couple continued to tease me. Surely it was not impossible to portray mutual bliss, inside or even outside of marriage? Without driving one’s audience screaming from the theatre? To create this beautiful couple with a loving, thriving relationship, perfect happy balanced children, a wonderful home, a big wild garden, a successful business, both of them generous hosts, supportive friends, superb cooks, the type of people who can find a plumber at short notice… You see, I can sense you’re already becoming restless.

Inevitably it was, of course, the people surrounding this golden couple who finally dictated the core of the play. For golden couples, dramatically at least, are more often than not catalysts who serve to illuminate others; their business partners, their neighbours, those people who wait in vain for a plumber, the friends who become entwined in them, competitively, enviously, amorously…. Fatally. The rest of us, really.

All the World loves a lover? I somehow doubt it.

Alan Ayckbourn

(Programme note from his 2002 revival of Joking Apart at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough)

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