Joking Apart: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains reviews of the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Joking Apart at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in January 1978. It is not a complete set of reviews as the aim of the page is to offer a flavour of how the play was originally received and to offer a cross-section of opinion. All reviews on this page are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author and should not be reproduced. Extracts from reviews of the original West End production of Joking Apart can be found here.

Ayckbourn's 21st Play Is Smoothest Yet* (by Eric Shorter)
"Alan Ayckbourn has done it again. Which means nothing, of course. Whenever his Scarborough company tries out one of his new plays it goes without saying that within a year it will be in the West End or bought for the National Theatre.
To that extent he seems incapable of failure, like the hero and heroine of his latest study in suburban manners,
Joking Apart, which he himself directs in-the-round at the Westwood Theatre, Scarborough.
But to my mind, this new comedy is the most satisfying of all his plays so far - and it is his 21st* - because in it he sheds so many mannerisms and substitutes the unrelenting theme of natural envy.
Let me put it this way. If in journeying to Scarborough to see his umpteenth success before it goes to London, I should happen to feel a twinge of disappointment at not seeing how it could be improved, then I would be suffering from what most of the characters in this beautifully observed and rather painful comedy are suffering from.
We are all fallible aren't we? That seems to be the trouble with Mr Ayckbourn's most agreeable and attractive couple whose hospitality and kindliness, social charm and assurance prove paradoxically so upsetting not to say destructive to their friends and neighbours after a decade or so.
They are so utterly happy, nice and successful.
For the first time in many seasons the company, led by Alison Skilbeck as the graceful heroine and Robert Austin as the chief sufferer from envy seems in charge of every mood. Malcolm Hebden's lovelorn vicar is particularly touching.
And there are none of those little tricks of construction or jokes about class awareness which this author sometimes leans on for his comic effects.
If there is a weakness - but no. Let me not sound meanly anxious to find a fault in the face of such smooth accomplishment."
(Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1978)

Joking Apart (by Irving Wardle)
"Time has always been a key component in Alan Ayckbourn's comedies, but usually in the form of amazing tricks with simultaneity and compression. In his twenty-first play*, Ayckbourn reverses the procedure with an action spanning 12 years, which shows time to be no laughing matter.
We start off with a brisk Guy Fawkes party given by Richard and Anthea for their friends and neighbours, an engagingly dotty crew evidently drawn from stereotype: toothy vicar and mousey wife who is scared of bangs; a beady-eyed Finn; Anthea's would-be lover who turns up throughout the play with a string of neglected girl friends; not to mention a pact of unseen children, one of whom brings the party prematurely to an end by relieving himself on the fireworks.
Ayckbourn can do this kind of scene standing on his head and it duly erupts as brilliant as the off-stage rocket, full of obvious gags that take you by surprise through cunning preparation.
The rest of the play follows up the tiny opening hints: discord, showing a widening gap between the four group and their children, and cutting down from stereotypes into individual characters who become progressively sadder the better we get to know them. Everything is implicit from the start, and the successive scenes each separated by four years shows time the wrecker at work.
Richard and Anthea alone are exempt from this process. Successful and generous, they keep open house for their friends unaware of the resentment and envy they arouse. Occupying a former vicarage with the real vicar confined to an adjoining cottage, they give him the freedom of the garden by knocking down the fence: result, hysterics from his wife, Louise, who wants her privacy.
Louise, memorably played by Shelagh Stuttle, is a deadly study in the domestic tyranny of the weak: every remark, every glance a dagger directed at someone. The measure of Ayckbourn's power is that in the end you feel sympathy even for her, fluttering on in a surprise light-hearted entrance, doped up to the eyeballs.
Equally pathetic is Richard's business partner, Sven, heavily pedantic, regally accepting the attentions of Olive, his doormat wife, and fanatically competitive - only to find himself hopelessly outclassed by Richard's business flair; and beating him at tennis only to discover that Richard was playing a left-handed game. The savagery of this scene, with the fat, complacent Olive transformed into a bloodthirsty Maenad at the edge of the court, is another unnerving stroke of what one must still call Ayckbourn's comic imagination.
Ayckbourn nowadays appears to achieve comedy by strenuously resisting it. The best passages in
Joking Apart take place in bedtime, when nothing in particular is happening. As characters exchange desultory gossip the atmosphere gradually thickens with some new, unsuspected poison. But for fans of his earlier manner, there are still dextrous examples of his skill with offstage tennis and croquet games, and simultaneous action such as the poor vicar's love declaration in the midst of Sven's match to the death.
It is a superb and chilling piece of work, performed under the author's direction by a crack company among whom I must acknowledge Alison Skilbeck's believably generous Anthea and Robert Austin's obsessively deliberate Sven."
(The Times, 3 February 1978)

Joking Apart (by Robin Thornber)
"The title of Alan Ayckbourn's newest comedy, his 21st*, tells you more than is usual with those familiar, inscrutable labels, After the frantic fun of
Bedroom Farce and Ten Times Table, Ayckbourn has returned to the wistful, downbeat mood of Absent Friends. And where the plays of his maturity have made critics reach for epithets like Chekhovian this one could make Ayckbourn an adjective of equal standing.
Where
Absent Friends dealt with death and the way we ignore it in the hope that it will go away, Joking Apart slits its stiletto wit into the tender areas of ageing and the constant, unavoidable insistence of failure, frustration, and futility.
In
Absent Friends where sudden mortality confronted us, the stage action all took place within real time. In Joking Apart the story spreads itself over 12 years, as three couples grow familiarly contemptuous. It opens with a literally spectacular display of fireworks and closes, to the metaphorical crunch of egos, colliding like icebergs, with a dying fall - one of the most tragic aches that has ever moved me in the theatre, desolately spun out.
The play begins with Richard and Anthea burning on the bonfire the fence between their garden and their neighbours - in a symbolic destruction of defences. Warm and hospitable, loving and giving, their only flaw is that they're so good they swallow everyone in their embrace. Richard (John Arthur) can't help winning, whether at tennis in the rain on Boxing Day or in his business partnership with the Finnish Sven (a brilliant performance by Robert Austin), slowly detumescing from smug Scandinavian superiority to the flaccid self pity of a man who has been faced with the failing of his powers and the fading of his self esteem.
Just as Anthea (Alison Skilbeck) can't help being loved by everyone from Hugh (Malcolm Hebden) the hesitant, hungry vicar next door with his neurotic, mousey wife (Shelagh Stuttle) to the ever present hanger-on who actually does all the work, Brian (Robin Herford) with his string of substitute girls. And, as promise withers into accommodation for the ageing adults on stage, off stage the children grow from dependent nuisances to steely self-containment
Like all Ayckbourn's plays,
Joking Apart is packed taut with maliciously funny observation of human foibles and it's a masterpiece of dramatic construction, teasing and toying with the audience, gently nudging the mood from languor to frenzy and back again as themes and relationships are imperceptibly intertwined.
And as if that wasn't enough, I am simply reduced to congratulating David Millard and the hyper-realism of his garden setting, complete with gazebo and a corner of tennis court, for the author's production at the Scarborough Theatre-in-the-Round which, now that the lease on the former Westwood School has been extended to 10 years, is to, be renamed in memory of Stephen Joseph."
(The Guardian, January 1978)

Joking Apart (by David Jeffels)
"A New Year has traditionally become the premiere time for a new play by Alan Ayckbourn. And this year is no exception for he has penned another work which, after a highly enthusiastic reception at its opening night at Scarborough's Westwood Theatre, where it had its world premiere, is expected to go into the West End at a later date.
Spanning a period of 12 years
Joking Apart centres around three couples and a happy-go-lucky bachelor. John Arthur and Alison Skilbeck shine as the unmarried couple who live in a large house where they entertain their friends and the somewhat-out-of-place neighbours, the vicar and his wife, brilliantly played by Malcolm Hebden and Shelagh Stuttle.
Robert Austin as John Arthur's Scandinavian business partner scores a real hit, and is well supported by his wife (Annette Badland).
Robin Herford plays the bachelor while Fiona Mathieson cleverly and convincingly fools the audience in three different roles as his girlfriends.
Alan Ayckbourn, the theatre's director of productions, is responsible for the superb direction while David Millard deserves special praise for his excellent sets. Frances Upton made the costumes for the production which goes on tour later this month."
(The Stage, January 1978)

Joking Apart
"Every January, my theatrical season always opens in Scarborough, this time with a new play by that prolific and inexhaustible observer of the human comedy, Alan Ayckbourn. It was the writer's 21st play.*
Benefiting from his experience as an actor, he knows fully the mechanics of a play. His dialogue is realistic and here it is deliberately a superb example of the inadequacy of language to express completely the conflicting emotions which afflict his group of friends and relations whose lives we see over the past 12 years.
Ayckbourn has always had, apart from stage skills, an understanding insight into human nature, with its inability to comprehend or communicate.
I cannot remember his dialogue being so effortlessly character-revealing since
Absent Friends. The marital and love confusions of this new work are played out in four scenes of a garden and arbour with real grass and trees.
A young and successful couple living together although not married, are visited by various people and entertained in this old garden and the conflicts of free love and unrequited love, success and failure, high spirits hiding uncertainty are all here in the breathless rush of incidents.
The hostess is a gay unthinking Anthea (Alison Skilbeck) and the host, a non-committal Richard (John Arthur). Malcolm Hebden, in a lovely modulated performance of the shy almost speechless vicar, shows finally in desperation his secret love for Anthea which he has hidden in eight years of silence. His wife, Shelagh Stuttle, is played plaintively through the stresses of her life to the sad illness which brings a vacancy of mind.
Robert Austin, as the overbearing priggish Swedish businessman, is played with a deliberating accent until he discovers that far from being the success he imagined, he is mediocre and expendable.
The tragedy lies with the man who almost succeeded. The wife who loves and tends him is one who glibly accepts success. Robin Herford is the brooding unsettled lover with three unfortunate choices of girls, all cleverly contrasted by an interesting actress, Fiona Mathieson."
(Yorkshire Post, January 1978)

Joking Apart - A Guaranteed Laugh (by Iain Meekley)
"Theatre in the Round patrons continue to be admonished not to smoke or take photographs in the theatre, but last night was probably the first occasion on which they have also been warned to keep off the grass.
Everyone entering the auditorium was reminded to step carefully over the hummocks of turf which dominate the landscape of David Millard's intriguing outdoor set for
Joking Apart.
The game was then to attempt to count the visual clues to the probable theme of Alan Ayckbourn's 21st play* before the game was given away. Hmmm, summerhouse, wrought iron furniture, tennis court fence - suburban conflict in the upper-middle league, obviously.
Partly right; the couples of
Joking Apart do meet and mismatch in a world of tennis, fruit punches, potted shrubs, and hand-wringing agonising over the choice of dinner vegetable.
But Ayckbourn's gift is that he is never quite that predictable; the only thing you can really be certain of is that he is going to be funny.
The play is ambitious enough in its scope - it spans a twelve year time-scale - but its variety of moods and situations is the spice of its life.
It begins with a rather regimented bonfire party, at which Richard and Anthea attempt to break down the barriers with new neighbours Hugh and Louise by ceremonially burning the garden fence on the tennis court.
This is not a terribly good idea, as Louise, cowering from the firecracker reports, correctly guesses - especially when they are handed an enigmatic warning by stiff self pitying Sven, Richard's business partner, who is of the opinion that his associate plays a left-handed game both at business and tennis.
"It makes it difficult to play a natural game," says Sven at one point later, scowling at the bonfire-scarred court.
His frumpish wife Olive is meanwhile reserving her envy for the lissom and ageless Anthea, who arouses very different emotions both in Hugh and the introspective, creepy Brian, working his way through a procession of Anthea surrogate girlfriends.
Robert Austin plays Sven with control and dignity - and an admirable Scandinavian accent - and Alison Skilbeck is nicely brisk as Anthea.
Malcolm Hebden is very much at home as the diffident clergyman racked by unspeakable emotions; "I love you - world without end! " he eventually blurts to Anthea - and John Arthur gives a bland, measured performance as Richard. Shelagh Stuttle is the tremulously neurotic Louise, and Annette Badland the green Olive.
Robin Herford is right on the oddball as Brian - "a nothing, a neutral", says Anthea without malice - and Fiona Mathieson tackles three roles as his succession of girlfriends with lively dedication.
At times, the play tests even Ayckbourn's ability to extract comedy from pathos - it ends with Sven a semi-invalid and Louise spaced-out on stimulants. It's not right, you shouldn't laugh. But joking apart, I guarantee that you will."
(Scarborough Evening News, 15 January 1978)

*
Joking Apart is actually Alan Ayckbourn's 22nd full-length play.

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.