Stables Theatre, Hastings

Joking Apart, a classic comedy written by Alan Ayckbourn and first performed in 1978, has many elements ideal for the modest resources of local theatre. There are seven characters, each with scope for dramatic development as the action evolves in four scenes spread over 12 years, with a series of roles for an eighth player as successive extra. There is one set: the leafy garden of a middle-class home featuring a back patio, patches of lawn and the corner of a tennis court.  

Anthea (Tara Buchanan) and Hugh (Mike Bendell) enjoy the garden fireworks”)

PIC: Peter Mould

But there are also a series of set-pieces, staged tantalisingly on the fringe of the action, to give director and stage manager (in this Stables production, Christopher Lacey and Carrie Beeson) logistical challenges: a Guy Fawkes night firework display in the opening scene, and a tennis contest later on, each of which requires sustained precision in timing to counterpoint the on-stage dialogue.  Technical delivery, even on the first night, was superb, with plaudits to be shared around a clearly proficient backstage team.

Home and garden owners, Richard (Gavin Nevett) and Anthea (Tara Buchanan) play host in each of the scenes, set successively four years apart.  Their visitors are on each occasion the same two dysfunctional middle-class couples – next door neighbours, well-meaning vicar Hugh (Mike Bendell) with neurotic wife Louise (Jackie Eichler), and Richard’s OCD Finnish business partner Sven (Michael Wilson, an especially rich portrait of self-defeating envy) with passive-aggressive wife Olive (Fred Lacey) – plus Brian (Neil Mitchell), a charmless employee in the business who arrives at each four-year interval with a different woman in tow (each played, with a disarming range of characterisation, by Aisling Tigwell). 

The twist from normal Ayckbournian comedy is that the host couple themselves are, at least from the point of view of their visitors, unnervingly and implacably charming and successful. Richard’s business flourishes even though, according to Sven, he devotes only a modicum of time and energy to it; his wife Anthea maintains herself slim and gorgeous, attracting (wholly unrequited) romantic devotion from both Hugh and Brian, while playing the perfect meal-producing hostess; as parents they bring up an apparently well-adjusted daughter Debbie, whose eighteenth birthday celebration forms the fourth and final scene, in contrast with their neighbours’  (unseen) socially challenged son.

They seem to have it all, effortlessly.

In conventional drama, we should expect such apparently superior characters to get their come-uppance during the course of the play, to have underlying flaws first exposed and then exploited. Joking Apart turns this standard dramatic trajectory on its head to darker comic effect. The perfect couple stay perfect, while their visitors grow increasingly resentful at the unfairness of their own comparative life misfortunes, ever more demoralised by their inability to compete on equal terms. 

Ayckbourn himself was quoted in the Stables programme as noting that the play remains one of his own favourites (among no less than 70 full-length plays written over a 50-year period). Asked whether it was still “relevant” 40 years on from its premiere, he said: “I suppose it will remain relevant so long as there are people who resent being created unequal and can never find it in their hearts to celebrate the good fortune and accomplishments of other people.” 

Of course everyone in our society, save the insanely sunny-tempered, harbours somewhere in themselves a degree of that resentment.  Thus, as in all good comedy, the Stables audience were laughing at elements of themselves.

Joking Apart was performed at the Stables Theatre between 15th and 23rd November. Next production is Treasure Island, running between 17th and 23rd December and again 27th -29th. “This is no pantomime”, according to the promotional brochure. “This is the National Theatre’s thrilling new version”.

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