Of all the plays he has written, Joking Apart is one of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s favourites, and watching the Nottingham Playhouse’s production, directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace, it is easy to see why.
Spread over twelve years, the play explores the lives of three couples and a bachelor, visiting them at four-yearly intervals, always in the setting of Richard and Anthea’s garden. From Bonfire Night in 1966 to Boxing Day in 1974, everyone hopes to relax, enjoy each other’s company and consume the never ending amount of food and drink provided by Anthea and Richard. Whilst there is a veneer of pleasantness displayed by all the characters at each meeting as time passes tensions begin to arise. The characters begin to be more openly truthful with their opinions of each other and the relationships between characters become increasingly strained and awkward.
At the heart of the play are Richard and Anthea, a happy, successful, loved-up couple, who live in complete bliss and are willing to do anything for anyone. Emily Pithons was excellent as Anthea, coming across as permanently bubbly, cheerful and enthusiastic, to the extent that it verged on annoying, something that is felt particularly strongly by many of the characters as they come to resent and envy her and her husband.
The other couples are all very interesting and distinct characters performed well by the cast. There is Hugh, the earnest new Vicar and Louise, his nervous wife. Sven, the Finnish business partner of Richard who always insists he is right and his long suffering wife, Olive, who constantly moans about Anthea’s figure and becomes increasingly unhappy. And Brian, with his ever changing girl-friends, Melody, Mandy and Mo, all played by Katie Brayben who managed to effectively create clear distinctions between each character, but performing some more believably than others.
Ayckbourn’s words are very witty and were executed well by the cast, drawing a lot of laughter from the audience. However it is not all fun and games as there is also a sense of darkness that becomes more evident as the play develops and the audience are introduced to ideas of ageing, failure and envy. Sven’s (Thorston Manderlay) speech in the final scene is particularly poignant, detailing some harsh truths about life, the winners and the losers, whilst still remaining humorous.
The garden set, complete with a tree and summer house, can be described as idyllic like the couple whose garden it depicts. It remained the same throughout the play, with subtle changes made in each scene to suggest the time of year. These changes were made by the cast themselves in effective transitions completed to music.
Whilst I did enjoy the play, I couldn’t help but feel that the first act seemed to drag a little, however tensions began to rise just before the interval and I found that the second act was a lot more fast-paced and engaging. Overall, this production of Joking Apart is a perceptive and enjoyable comedy, containing aspects of darkness as it explores the unhappiness of the characters. Definitely worth a watch.
Images by Robert Day