Joking Apart: Background

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. At a result, it initially did not gain the recognition and attention it has subsequently received as a particularly incisive look at relationships, which is as relevant now as it ever was.

Joking Apart was the third of Alan’s ‘winter’ plays, written during the Christmas period for a New Year premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. It suffered none of the problems which afflicted Alan's previous play Ten Times Table, which the author had written more than half of before deciding to 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.

Joking Apart was inspired by someone asking Alan why he never wrote plays about happy couples; of course the obvious answer is there is little drama 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 only highlighted their unhappiness and failings. The 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.

Apparently one of Alan's other inspirations was someone telling him about a vicar friend, who had lost his faith. 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.

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 remembers the play was an enormous success in Scarborough and played to full houses for its four week run. It then went on a short UK tour - the first Stephen Joseph Theatre tour to receive sponsorship with Midland Bank (now HSBC) sponsoring the production - before returning 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.

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. Unfortunately, it 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.

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.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.