Joking Apart: Character Notes by Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn rarely writes detailed notes about his characters or directing his plays, however there are some notes in the Ayckbourn Archive relating to Joking Apart.

A good man. He is, at the start, a practising Christian who tries as best he can to live by Christ's teachings. A weak man, he found these teachings, this belief a source of enormous strength and consolation. His character was inspired by a conversation I had when someone casually mentioned that their vicar had 'lost his faith'. I tried to think what that would be like for someone like Hugh, someone who had based his whole life on that faith. Not an intellectualised faith, but rather a more blinkered, unquestioning, instinctive faith upon which he'd based his marriage, his career, his whole life. Little by little Hugh finds himself drawn towards Anthea. And at first he can dismiss it as a platonic Christian friendship. (Dear innocent Hugh). In scene one she's a very nice, warm welcoming attractive woman. She teases him slightly, which is nice. No one's ever teased Hugh (well not affectionately like that) in his whole life before. But by scene two, Anthea's growing into something more. A sort of angel? Maybe one of a pair of angels. Correspondingly with this concealed (or so Hugh thinks) attraction grows a disenchantment with Louise. Did Hugh ever love her? Did Louise ever love him? I doubt it. Maybe briefly right at the start. I think their son Christopher finally put paid to that. By scene three Hugh is ready to throw everything away. Maybe the scene with Anthea is more painful because of the surprise she shows at his declaration of love. She never even guessed. She never ever loved him in return, not one little bit. She merely thought of Hugh as a sweet, caring, loving man. But not that sort of love!
Hugh finally accepts that he may have left God, but God is still very much there and that he must spend the rest of his life making amends for the sin of - what - lust? Or is it pride? Vanity, that he could ever have his own pathetic love reciprocated by a higher being like Anthea.

I think Anthea is good. But perhaps not quite as perfect as Hugh would imagine. She is very English. She comes from a very good family. She's well bred. In that way that the daughters (especially the daughters) from that echelon often are.
Anthea's judged the balance very correctly with Richard. Canny enough to know when or when not to concede. When to be strong, when to be a bit girly. Mostly, she's very happy to support him. To go her own way. Deal with the kids. Run the place. But she and Richard are a team. They rarely disagree on anything. It's the difference between being innately good like they are and being good as a result of a set of rules imposed on you from outside. Richard and Anthea don't need rules imposed on them, telling them how to live. They have the rules instinctively built in. They know how to live. For the day. To the full. A sense of fair play, honesty, tolerance, generosity, give and take....
Anthea's weakness, if she has one, is she is only slowly growing to realise that not everyone is like her and Richard. There are people out there with real problems. Who don't instinctively make the right choices. Or who make choices which grow from jealousy (Olive), sexual hatred (Louise), sexual lust (Hugh) or downright competitive envy (Sven). Of course, does Anthea really not know? Do neither she nor Richard know what the hell is going on in the rest of the world? Well, if they do they're clever enough to hide it. Except in that very last scene with Debbie when we witness a corner of the curtain lifted for just a second. When we are admitted into their inner sanctum. When Anthea talks to Debbie about some people not being as blessed as they are.
So Anthea is either an angel who now resides in her own co-created garden of Eden into which others are invited but can never stay for long. Or they're a selfish couple who've been dead lucky and fallen on their feet and, though they enjoy company occasionally, don't finally give a stuff about anyone else. I think neither of these propositions is true. Maybe a little of each.

A piece of the debris from Anthea's past. He loved and lost her to Richard - Brian is another caught in her undertow. But he has never let go of her. He tries initially to recreate her by finding others like her. Fat chance. By the time we meet him we are fairly far along the line of bad relationships. There is a sense that Brian is, now, as the years tick by, seeking out girls that are increasingly unlike Anthea and as unsuitable as possible. A sort of sick joke aimed directly at himself. He's a man actually hollowed out by love. A shell of a person eaten away by unfulfilled desire. No wonder Debbie finds him creepy. He sees in her, of course, another Anthea. But twenty years too young and even more inaccessible. There are a lot of men like Brian. Who allow themselves to fall helplessly for a woman and let themselves be used and manipulated in the sad hope that this in some way constitutes love or will lead to love from her. It rarely ever does. For the woman, it's just handy to have a bloke around to call on if you want something. A heavy fridge to move or a carpet to lay. Or shopping to carry. Or even to provide a room to share with the kids when you're thrown out of your home. Who's to blame? I don't know. The man for allowing himself to be used like that? Or the woman for using him? And in Anthea's case, yet again, did she even know she was using him? In my opinion, yes she did. But she can sort of justify that, really, by telling herself that Brian enjoys being used, that that's what makes him happy
The kind thing to do would be the cruel one. Tell him to go away and find someone else. But somehow, it's not quite so convenient as having someone at your beck and call. Until Richard comes along and really takes charge of her life. Takes care of them all. After that, well you have to say thank you to Brian, don't you? By inviting him down occasionally. But of course, all she's doing there is keeping the flame inside him alive.

She is a desperately small minded, suburban woman who married Sven whom she considered little short of God. She has happily married her intellectual superior, the Einstein of his generation and is content, at the start, complacently to play second fiddle. The fall of Olive then is directly linked to the fall of the House of Sven. She believed all the invincible line that Sven sold her, the ever confident Continental.
During the course of the play she grows to realise, little by little, that Sven has feet of clay. Their world, their cosy, smug insular world is sinking. Olive has entirely given herself over to the care and support of Sven and now they are sinking together. He patronises her dreadfully, and as he sinks into the self loathing - the dark Nordic acceptance of what fate has chosen to mete out to him - he smiles his way to the inevitable Valhalla of failure.

Louise is another suburban creature. Again, her fate is inextricably linked to that of her husband. She rather fancied the idea of being a vicar's wife and lording it round the parish a bit and dispensing good works to the needy and socially deprived. Poor Louise, she tries her best but again, she has married a failure and finds herself increasingly defending him against the world. I think actually that where Hugh slowly loses his faith, Louise grimly clings on to hers, the archetypal disproving Christian. Hugh betrays her by falling secretly (or so he thinks) in love with Anthea whom he becomes obsessed with. I think it's a secret love that's blatantly obvious to certainly every Woman in the village except Anthea for whom Hugh is the last person in the world she would ever imagine could have such feelings. Louise knows by the third scene that she has lost her husband even though he will never leave her. She grows to loathe Anthea and by the last scene she has lost it completely. All of them are like moths around the bright candle of Richard, Anthea and their family. All either compete with them or worse fall in love with them.

Richard is pretty straightforward. His one flaw is that he tends, gently, to extricate himself from scenes that threaten to be in the least socially embarrassing. He has the uncanny knack of either being very busy or not there at all. It's no coincidence he cooks the dinner or makes the punch or wires up the tennis court for the dance. The only time we see him genuinely uncomfortable, well, possibly the two times, are when he's caught playing left handed with Sven (with all the best Richard like intentions, mind you) and at the end when Sven confronts him momentarily and accuses him, more or less, of patronising him.

Regarding the passage of time in Joking Apart

When I did it originally there was little sense of time passing except through the Melody / Mandy / Mo / Debbie line of characters. She being, as it were, the ageless calendar against which they all grow older. Some faster and less successfully than others. But the rest was reflected in the seasons in the garden and the attitude of the characters themselves with a little discreet greying here and there.

Regarding Olive

Olive is very Yorkshire. She's suet pudding, so complacent you want to shake her. She has a closed mind and it’s opened only through the filter of Sven. And because of him, they are the centre of this universe - that's how they think of themselves, the top dogs. There’s a real marital solidity to them. They speak as one and that one is Sven.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of Alan Ayckbourn.