Salisbury Playhouse/Nottingham Playhouse co-production
As we take our seats for the play, first performed in 1975, we know we’re in typical Ayckbourn territory.
The stage is bathed in sunshine and stage right is an enormous tree. Plenty of dramatic or—this being Ayckbourn—comic potential here then, although the tree will be used only to support a swing and, later on, for hanging decorative lights. But that little summerhouse will surely have a few secrets to reveal, won’t it?
Don’t be too sure. Because Joking Apart isn’t really about plot, is it? It's about character. And the corrosive effects of envy, of course.
We start off in 1966. Richard and Anthea (Robert Curtis and Emily Pithon) have a loving relationship, a highly successful business importing Scandinavian furniture, an affluent life style and a group of deservedly devoted friends, their only concern being to enhance and improve their neighbours’ lives.
And yet, whatever their good intentions, as we follow them through the next twelve years their actions have quite the opposite effect. When Richard attempts to boost his obsessively pedantic Finnish business partner Sven’s (Thorston Manderlay) self esteem by allowing him to beat him at tennis, this only serves to drive Sven himself into depression and physical decline, while Olive, Sven’s comfortably plump wife (Natasha Byrne), is made increasingly fractious by Anthea’s ability to retain her slim figure in spite of a healthy appetite and contempt for dieting.
Perhaps the saddest characters, though, are those of the new neighbours, Hugh, the rather timid and ineffectual vicar (Edward Harrison) and Louise, his neurotic and increasingly manic wife (Sally Scott). When Richard destroys their dividing fence, so that Hugh and Louise can have free access to their garden, the fact that it was once the vicarage garden only serves to underline their social inadequacy and when Hugh eventually tells Anthea he loves her it is treated, however kindly, as an irrelevance.
Only Brian, Richard’s seemingly androgynous right hand man (Will Barton) and Mandy (Katie Brayben, who also plays Debbie, Anthea’s daughter), who spends a lot of time quietly sketching the action from her swing, are impervious to Richard and Anthea’s charismatic influence.
Some strongly drawn characters then.
But isn’t it the mark of a truly satisfying play that, as you leave the theatre, you care about what happens next to the people you’ve shared the last two hours with?
Do we care about these people, then?
We may, but they are already on the road to perdition, apart from Richard and Anthea, of course, although their turn may come as, in another play, it would.
Well, I think we care about eighteen-year-old Debbie, frantically, at the end of the play, shaking off the oppressive influence of her parents’ excruciating goodness to the sound of the seventies disco band Le Freak and offering us hope that, for her at least, there will be opportunities to escape into the real, sometimes challenging and uncomfortable, world and so find eventual self-fulfilment.
For the rest, you feel only Ayckbourn could elicit so much laughter, as he did in Salisbury on Friday evening, from such a sadly flawed set of characters.
Reviewer: Anne Hill