Alan Ayckbourn is a master at weeding out human foibles and his darkly funny play Joking Apart is a fine example of this. Lucy Pitman-Wallace has revitalised this clever, poignantly sad, yet very humorous portrayal of etiquette, friendships and jealousies.
The action takes place in the back garden of the ‘perfect couple’, Richard and Anthea, between 1966 and 1978. The set, creatively and believably designed by Tom Rogers is a triumph. It has a magnificent climbable tree, tennis court, summer house and an authentic, although rather scruffy, lawn. Off stage effects, consisting of errant fireworks, wayward children and the far side of tennis matches, cleverly compliment the thread of the play, adding many details to provide a convincing whole story.
Each of the characters is finely drawn and superbly played by this diverse cast. The plot intrinsically links their lives through business, neighbours and old friends in a caricature mirror image of life in suburbia.
Richard and Anthea (Robert Curtis and Emily Pithon) play a blissfully happy, carefree and ‘loved up’ couple whose annoyingly ‘lucky’ life is untouched by the pain and bitterness of their fallible friends.
Richard’s business partner Sven, nit-pickingly played by Thorston Maderlay, is acidly pedantic throughout. He is ably supported by his long suffering, chubby spouse Olive (Natasha Byrne) who secretly munches chocolates from her handbag whilst complaining of the slim frames surrounding her. Sven portrays himself as a strong, capable character but is ultimately seen as a rather pathetic, weak individual.
The neighbours, a newly appointed vicar, Hugh (Edward Harrison) and his prissy wife Louise (Sally Scott) are a credible couple who lurch through an increasingly dysfunctional marriage where their minor annoyances with each other become gaping chasms, particularly once Hugh has professed his growing love for Anthea, the ‘perfect’ woman. Louise’s final madness, exacerbated by excess medication, is rather overdone and although comical verges on farce rather than realism.
Brian Will Barton has covertly loved Anthea for years and plays a bitter unfulfilled character. He has a string of unsuitable girlfriends, who can never fill the void in his life. These parts are variously played by Katie Brayben who eventually morphs into Richard and Anthea’s ‘perfect’ daughter, Debbie.
Although a short play it is powerful and hard hitting. We all recognise the characters in our own lives, or could they be us!!
This is Ayckbourn at his very best and is one of his favourite plays. It is easy to see why.