Joking Apart: History

Of all the plays he has written, Alan Ayckbourn has frequently said Joking Apart is one of his favourites. Alan has always been protective of the plays he feels have not received the attention they deserved and Joking Apart suffered from being ill-served in the West End and was over-shadowed by the more successful Bedroom Farce running simultaneously at the National Theatre.
Behind The Scenes: Early Ideas
The earliest notes relating to Joking Apart are held in the Ayckbourn Archive in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University Of York. Two pages of A4 hand-written pencil notes ostensibly relating to Just Between Ourselves (1975) include a broad outline for a "3 act study of 7 characters over x years." This patently does not refer to Just Between Ourselves and probably laid the seeds for Joking Apart three years later.
As a result, Joking Apart initially did not gain the recognition and attention it has subsequently received as a particularly incisive look at relationships, which - as the playwright's own 40th anniversary production in 2018 demonstrated - is as relevant now as it ever was.

Joking Apart
was the third of Alan’s ‘winter’ plays (following Just Between Ourselves and Ten Times Table), written during the Christmas period for a New Year premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough (at this point called Theatre in the Round at Westwood before its name was changed in April 1978). It suffered none of the problems which afflicted Alan's previous play Ten Times Table (1977), which the author had written more than half of before deciding to go back to the start and rewrite much of it. A press release for the production indicates Alan wrote Joking Apart in five days in mid-December 1977; prior to the post-Christmas start of rehearsals.
Behind The Scenes: Getting Younger
Alan Ayckbourn's early notes for the play also illustrates the ages of the characters as the play progresses. The original table shows Melody / Mandy / Mo / Debbie (identified by a 'G' referring to 'girls') each being older than the previous girl, rather than each girl being younger than the next; another note has all the girls being the same age. In the final play, the girls are in direct counterpoint to the main characters who age over the 12 years, while Brian's girlfriends get younger with each scene.
Joking Apart had - Alan contends - three inspirations, most notably someone asking Alan why he never wrote plays about happy couples; of course the obvious answer is there is little dramatic potential in happiness and contentment.

However, the idea caught Alan’s imagination and he began to wonder if there was a play to be made from it; particularly if the play was not actually about the happy couple, but focused on the people around them and how a 'perfect' relationship would only serve to highlight their own unhappiness and failings. The perceived 'perfection' of Richard and Anthea’s relationship merely serves to emphasise the imperfections of everyone else’s relationships. As Alan has noted, the mistake with anyone producing or watching
Joking Apart is to presume the play is about Richard and Anthea. It is not. If it is about anyone in particular, it is Sven, but more than that it is about the 'normal' people surrounding Richard and Anthea, whose lives are so affected by the golden couple. The 'golden' couple were apparently inspired by a gay couple whom Alan knew well.
Behind The Scenes: Losing Faith
With regard to the character of Hugh and his loss of faith, Alan recalls the fascinating incident which inspired him: "My friends asked [an acquaintance], 'What's happened to so-and so?' - meaning the local vicar. And she said 'Oh, he's lost his faith!' And he went 'I don't think that was called for.' She went 'Oh !' - as though he'd hit her, whack! Well, there were three things. He had put her down for blabbing: obviously she kept saying things that in his opinion she shouldn't have. Then there was the vicar who'd lost his faith, which fascinated me anyway, and there was the fact that this man wasn't going to talk about it; there were all those things going on, within just a few seconds."
It is intriguing to note that during this period, Alan has admitted to drawing direct inspiration for some of his characters from real life people; in Ten Times Table, produced the previous year, Councillor Donald Evans had been loosely based on Scarborough Councillor Maurice Plow. In Joking Apart, the character of Sven was apparently inspired by two Finnish men Alan knew. The first was a director and the second was another Scarborough councillor.

The second of Alan's inspirations was a friend telling him about a vicar, who had lost his faith (see right). This became the basis for Hugh, whose faith is tested by his mistaken belief of the possibility of a relationship with Anthea. Hugh's personal struggle with his feelings for Anthea, his deteriorating relationship with his wife Louise and the realisation he has thrown away everything for nothing is particularly affecting, especially as it encompasses a genuine crisis of faith which Hugh ultimately has to confront.

The final inspiration was the passage of time catching up with the playwright. He realised - at the age of 39 - that his eldest son was now 18 and an adult. With
Joking Apart, Alan addressed the passage of time and how that affects people for the first time in one of his plays.
Behind The Scenes: Which Year?
Alan Ayckbourn firmly believes his plays are period pieces and should be staged accordingly. Although the time for Joking Apart is not specified in the script, Alan believes it should be set during the '70s. However, it is not clear whether the 12 year time-span begins in the late '70s or starts in the late '70s. For his 2018 revival, Alan directed the play as though it began in 1966 and ended in 1978, the year the play was written.
Not only was Joking Apart unusual in dealing with a contented couple, but it was also the first Ayckbourn play to encompass an extended time-span. The play is set over twelve years and gave Alan the luxury of showing relationships over the long-term and the effects and repercussions of actions over time. It is extremely rare for Alan to set a play over such a long period of time and this alone makes it a fascinating part of the Ayckbourn canon; only A Brief History Of Women has a longer time-frame of sixty years.

Joking Apart
premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough on 12 January 1978. The garden set was created with real grass as apparently it was cheaper to use grass than astro-turf on stage! Alan recalls the play was an enormous success in Scarborough and played to full houses for its initial four week run. It then went on a short UK end-stage tour - the first Stephen Joseph Theatre tour to receive sponsorship with Midland Bank (now HSBC) sponsoring the production - which saw the company having to rehearse in the town's Royal Opera House theatre due to construction work at the theatre in the round. The play subsequently returned to Scarborough for another five weeks as part of the theatre's summer repertory season; although as it was now in repertory the real grass was replaced by artificial grass.
Behind The Scenes: Odd Sounds
Following Joking Apart's initial 'winter' run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, it was then revived for the summer season at the venue. The revival featured new sound effects for the pivotal tennis match in the play. Apparently the effects for the original production had been recorded in a car park and both passing cars and the sound of Scarborough's seagulls could be heard in the background! The new recording eliminated both cars and anachronistic birds from the country-set play.
Alan has said the three winter plays (Just Between Ourselves, Ten Times Table and Joking Apart) saw him venture into darker territory than normal and the Scarborough audiences took to them very quickly, giving them a validation and success which was largely not repeated in the West End productions (although a number of London critics, if not audiences, recognised and accepted Alan was venturing into new territory with Just Between Ourselves and Joking Apart).

Alan's regular London producer Michael Codron optioned the play for the West End during its initial run at Scarborough and it opened at the Globe Theatre on 7 March 1979. Alan's agent Margaret Ramsay was particularly keen for Penelope Keith, who had been in the acclaimed London production of
The Norman Conquests, to take the role of Anthea but it instead went to acclaimed actress Alison Steadman with Christopher Casenove as Richard. One member of the Scarborough company transferred to the West End with Robert Austin reprising his role of Sven, which drew almost unanimous praise and acclaim. The play was directed by Alan Ayckbourn, only the second time he had directed in the West End following Ten Times Table the previous year.
Behind The Scenes: Getting Out And In
The West End premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Joking Apart was unusual in that it immediately followed Alan's previous play, Ten Times Table, into the Globe Theatre. Ten Times Table closed on 3 March 1979 and Joking Apart opened four days later on 7 March. Alan Ayckbourn recalls going to the final performance of Ten Times Table and staying in the theatre to watch the get out of that play and the get in of Joking Apart, knowing it was unlikely he would ever see anything similar in the West End again.
Unfortunately, the London production was not a great success despite some good notices and winning the Play And Players Award for Best Comedy. Alan felt the play did not transfer at all well to the proscenium arch, whilst Michael Codron felt the reasons for its lack of success was a combination of a poor summer in the West End and a 7% rise in VAT that year; whatever the reasons, it was the first time an Ayckbourn play in the West End did not recoup its costs. The play closed on 7 July, just four months after opening and, with the exception of the musical Jeeves, was the shortest run an Ayckbourn play had had in the West End since his first West End transfer Mr Whatnot in 1967.

Whilst Codron's arguments for the play's lack of success in London are legitimate, there is a stronger case put forward by the critic Michael Billington who proposed the problem with the lack of success of the 'winter' plays in London was more to do with the audiences. He has argued the West End audiences were far less open to viewing Alan's plays as anything but light comedy and laughter. As a result, they did not so readily embrace the darker turn of his work, which had proven so successful with Scarborough audiences and subsequently in other regional reproductions.
Behind The Scenes: Snake In The Grass
When Alan Ayckbourn revived Joking Apart in 2002 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, it ran in repertory with his latest play. When considering titles for which, Alan eventually decided on Snake In The Grass; a perfect title for a dark thriller but also a nod to Joking Apart. Within the second scene of Joking Apart, Mandy is drawing a picture which she notes features "a snake in the grass."
Joking Apart has been adapted for the radio by the BBC twice in 1981 and 1990; unfortunately, these adaptations have never been commercially released and have rarely been repeated since.

In 2002, Alan returned to the play, reviving it at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. It was well-received and ran in repertory with Alan's latest play Snake In The Grass which shared the same set as Joking Apart (hence both plays feature a tennis court and a summer house). Joking Apart has become increasingly popular over the years and is a frequently performed part of the Ayckbourn canon by both professional and amateur companies.

In 2018,
Joking Apart celebrated its 40th anniversary with Alan Ayckbourn directing a acclaimed revival of the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. The playwright would go on to confide that he believed that this was the finest production of the play he had directed and that the play, already one close to his heart, was now one of his favourite works.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.