Joking Apart: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview was compiled by Alan Ayckbourn Archivist Simon Murgatroyd in 2013 to mark the 35th anniversary of the play.

Simon Murgatroyd: What was the inspiration behind writing Joking Apart?
Alan Ayckbourn:
The initial inspiration was realising that my eldest son was then 18, able to vote and buy me a drink. The passage of time suddenly caught up with me! I think with Joking Apart I began to feel my age.

Is it also true the play was written as a result of someone complaining you only wrote about miserable relationships?
Yes, having written about so many unhappy couples, I was challenged to write a play about a really happy, contented couple. The result was Richard and Anthea. But, as always, I became far more interested in what this blissful happiness did to the people around this couple. It’s really a play about winners and losers.

Was it a challenge writing such a contented couple?
Definitely. As any dramatist will tell you, the most difficult thing in the world is to mine anything dramatic from a contented couple. Two people gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes can become a trifle tedious after two hours! So Richard and Anthea became the catalysts around which everyone else revolved with all their flaws, frustrations and failures as they struggled to compete or just cope with this golden couple.

It sounds like one of your darker plays, would you agree?
It’s still a comedy, but it’s a comedy which deals with jealousy and it’s about people who are ultimately destroyed by envy.

Unusually for you, this play has a long time-span, 12 years in total, why did you make that choice?
Generally speaking, the rule is to try and tell a story within the shortest period you can. If you can condense events into a short space of time, it binds your drama together and gives a sharpness and focus to the play. However, by looking at these characters over such a length of time, you get what could be termed a ‘long lens’ feel. You are - in effect - placing your audience at a distance from the action and they are watching it, as it were, in ‘long shot’ and can see whole lives unfold. The reason I chose the ‘long lens’ for Joking Apart was I hoped to show what the passing of time does to people.

Is it true the original production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round featured real grass?
I recall our designer budgeted it and discovered it was cheaper to lay real turf than buy astroturf! It was a truly atmospheric set with real trees and real grass and all the accompanying insect-life that came with it! Robin Herford, who played Brian, was sprawled out on the grass one night and came face to face with a centipede!

Joking Apart is also notable as being one of your rare West End misfires. The original West End production only ran for four months, why do you think that was?
I remember it was an enormous success in Scarborough and worked a treat. The designer David Millard gave us this marvellous set and you really felt the seasons come and go as we all - actor and audience - sat there together in this garden. When I directed it in London, despite a couple of wonderful performances, it didn’t recapture that feeling. I don’t think it worked in the proscenium - some plays, I think, are best left in the round.

Joking Apart is sometimes quoted as one of your favourite plays, is this true?
It is one of my favourites. Looking back on all my plays, I don’t really have a single favourite. But the ones I like most are the ones that are done the least or don’t quite do as well as they should - like Joking Apart. They’re my little orphans and Joking Apart is a play for which I have a particular affection.

Joking Apart celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, do you believe it’s still relevant all these years on?
I’ve previously said that, in an imperfect world, the unremittingly perfect can prove just as much a source of unhappiness as it can happiness. In the end, we tend either to attempt to destroy such perfection or reduce it to our level; destroy ourselves through envy or vainly and fatally attempt to compete. Joking Apart will, I suppose, remain relevant so long as there are people who resent being created unequal and who can never find it in their hearts to celebrate the good fortune and accomplishments of other people.

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