Stephen Joseph Theatre
22 July 2002 WOS Rating: Average Reader Rating: Reader Reviews: View and add to our user reviews In the late 1970s, to be a character in an Alan Ayckbourn play was to inhabit a distinctly unhealthy landscape. This was the period when his Scarborough theatre changed from being a summer season venue for holidaymakers to become a year-round operation, a move which gave rise to his first "winter plays". Instead of being written in the late spring for summer, these were written in December "whilst the North Sea storms hurtled round the house, slates cascaded from the roof and metal chimney cowlings were bounced off parked cars below my window. Not surprisingly, the result was a rather sad...play." Sad, indeed, involving a coronary and a total emotional breakdown. Not exactly the stuff of great comedy.
Joking Apart upset its author deeply by failing to play for any appreciable time in the West End in 1979, but frankly it isn't too hard to see why. The premise is that we have, to quote the programme note, "an ideal, balanced, happy couple" who act as a catalyst to create mayhem around themselves. Alas, as played here (and I confess to remembering their original incarnations 24 years ago when it wasn't so), Richard ( David Leonard) and Anthea ( Fiona Mollison), far from being balanced or happy, relate to each other not at all and play the whole piece at a shout in barely suspended hysteria. The result is to throw the spotlight on to Richard's professional partner - the Scandinavian pedant Sven ( Paul Raffield, laudably avoiding the readily presented racial stereotype) and his ever-burgeoning loyal Brummie wife Olive ( Rachel Atkins, gaining kilos by the minute over the twelve years covered by the play) - who, had the playwright got his focus correct, should be the central characters of the piece anyway. They, along with the bumbling vicar, Hugh (nicely understated by Adrian McLoughlin), who develops and nurses a wholly incredible passion for Anthea, and his wife Louise (the wonderful Susie Blake who crumbles before our eyes and ends up in drugged near-catatonia), give the play what thrust it has.
There are a good few laughs along the way, but in all honesty Ayckbourn fails to make his point about the destructive potential of niceness, if only because his portrayal of nice folks involves people any punter with a brain cell would avoid as lepers. And, sad as it is to report, the sub-plot about Brian, Richard and Sven's employee and Anthea's former swain (played impeccably by
Kenneth Price), with his string of ever-younger and increasingly inappropriate girlfriends (all splendidly portrayed by Georgina Freeman), whilst pleasantly diverting, is just irrelevant.
There's not a lot wrong with
Joking Apart. It's just a bit boring - and there's plenty of that on telly. And incidentally, given that this is played on essentially the same set as Snake in the Grass (q.v.), Scarborough audiences are feeling distinctly scenically deprived. Whatever happened to all the vast sums of extra funding going into regional theatre?
- Ian Watson
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