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Alan Ayckbourn’s first ‘happy couple’ return to Scarborough stage in Joking Apart

The original production of Joking Apart with John Arthur, Robert Austin and Annette Badland

Later this month Joking Apart, Ayckbourn’s 21st play, returns to the Stephen Joseph Theatre – 40 years after its premiere there. In September his 82nd will make its debut. Nick Smurthwaite looks at the domestic comedy’s roots

For a playwright as prolific as Alan Ayckbourn – his 82nd work for the stage opens in Scarborough later this year – it is hardly surprising that occasionally he casts the net wide for inspiration.

For example, the original idea for Joking Apart, first produced in 1978, resulted from a random conversation he had with a disgruntled audience member in the bar at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the launch pad for all his new works.

After sitting through one of his bleaker domestic comedies, she said: “Hundreds of us live very happily with one another. Why can’t you write about us?”

Ayckbourn mulled this over for a week or so. He wrote later, in an introduction to a previous revival of Joking Apart: “Why do I never write about happy people? They make life worth living for those of us around them. They lighten our hearts with their secret smiles and tender whispers. They are also, in dramatic terms, very irritating and not a little boring.”

‘The unremittingly perfect can prove to be just as much a source of unhappiness as it can happiness’

“Drama,” he continued, “thrived on conflict, delighting in flying plates, slamming doors, raised voices and even the occasional dose of poison.”

So he decided to break the habit of a lifetime and create a happy and successful married couple – “the kind of people whose fridge never goes wrong and who can always find a plumber at short notice” – whose friendship group is made up of other couples not as blessed as they are.

The action of the play spans 12 years, and all four scenes take place in the back garden of the annoyingly happy Anthea and Richard. Their less fortunate friends, summoned to various barbecues and parties, become increasingly embittered and neurotic over the years while smiling through the pain.

“Having created such paragons [as Anthea and Richard] I wanted to know what effect they would have on other characters,” Ayckbourn told a journalist at the time.

Writer and director Alan Ayckbourn. Photo: Amanda Saunders
Writer and director Alan Ayckbourn. Photo: Amanda Saunders

Despite his original intention of writing about a happy couple, it is in fact familiar Ayckbourn territory – middle-class angst under-scored by social hypocrisy. He has described it in the past as a play about winners and losers.

He wrote of the play: “I suppose it says that, in an imperfect world, the unremittingly perfect can prove to be just as much a source of unhappiness as it can happiness. As a theme it is likely to remain relevant so long as there are people who resent being created unequal and thus can never find it in their hearts to celebrate the good fortune or accomplishments of others.”

Joking Apart is one of a trio of what Ayckbourn calls his “winter” plays – the others are Just Between Ourselves and Ten Times Table – because he attributes the darkness within them to the fact that they were all written in the winter months in Scarborough.

It was written when he was 38 years old and increasingly aware of the rapid passage of time. At the time of its premiere, he said in an interview: “It’s quite a shock to find that you are 38 and your 18-year-old son is old enough to drive you about in his own car. Until now my plays have always been on a very limited timescale, but I set this one over 12 years, hoping to show what time does to people just by passing. It is the first time I have begun to feel my age.”

Audiences, Ayckbourn once said, are a bit like children – the less you insult their intelligence, the more intelligent they tend to become.

The original poster for Joking Apart in 1978. Credit: Scarborough Theatre Trust

Contrary to what he was told in that bar in the 1970s, he firmly believes audiences are not interested in seeing plays about happy, smiling couples gazing lovingly into each others’ eyes. He points out that there is not a single happy marriage in Shakespeare’s entire play cycle.

He continues: “An audience is generally happier leaving a theatre believing their relationship is in better shape than the people in the play. Better comedy writing is always an inch away from being tragedy. I try to tread the tightrope. In this case the rope is fairly good, but I never really know where the balance is until I see the audience reaction.”

In his early years as a playwright, Ayckbourn was always mindful of his mentor Stephen Joseph’s advice that one of the keys to writing plays for what was then the Library Theatre, Scarborough, was to remember they had to lure disgruntled holidaymakers in from the rain and then keep them amused for two hours.

However bleak the drama or black the comedy, Ayckbourn knew he must engage and amuse a broad cross-section of the public who might otherwise be taking part in a knobbly-knees contest or getting drunk in the bar.

As one critic astutely observed of Joking Apart: “The play invites the audience to see its own neuroses played out on stage and dares it to laugh.”

Joking Apart is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough from July 26 to October 4. Better Off Dead will premiere in September