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Joking Apart review at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough – ‘slender but astute’

Richard Stacey, Jamie Baughan, Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Leigh Symonds, Liz Jadav and Naomi Petersen in Joking Apart at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Photo: Tony Bartholomew

The grass is always greener, so they say. But for vicar Hugh (Jamie Baughan) and his wife Louise (Louise Shuttleworth), it really is rosier over the fence. Alan Ayckbourn’s 1978 play explores the undercurrents of envy and resentment swirling around the vicarage’s next-door neighbours, picture perfect Richard (Laurence Pears) and Anthea (Frances Marshall).

Set over 12 years in the couple’s idyllic back garden, Joking Apart is a slender but astute study of success, failure and the way we measure ourselves against others. In Ayckbourn’s production – his fifth of this play – moments of awkwardness and shades of unease remain brilliantly observed. Leigh Symonds has great fun as Richard’s increasingly bitter business partner Sven, while Marshall manages somehow to convey both guileless generosity and something more unsettling as Anthea.

In many ways, it’s a play about the creep of the years – an apt theme for a 40th-anniversary production. But while envy is an evergreen subject, other aspects of Ayckbourn’s play have aged less gracefully. The mocking of Louise’s depression jars, while another character’s interchangeable young girlfriends (all played by the under-used Naomi Petersen) get a troublingly raw deal. The direction, too, can seem stuck in the past, with laborious scene changes sapping the dynamism of the drama.

What remains striking, though, is the play’s portrait of apparent perfection and what it does to those around it. Though Ayckbourn sometimes underlines his points too heavily, in its subtler moments Joking Apart still offers uncomfortable observations about how we relate and compete.

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Forty-year-old Ayckbourn comedy still offers some astute observations about envy and competition