“Don’t you have any normal friends?”
The next all-male Gilbert and Sullivan production at the Union (Patience) appears to be taking place early next year rather than taking the pre-festive slot that one has become accustomed to over the last couple of years, and instead we’re being treated to a bit of Alan Ayckbourn with his 21st comedy Joking Apart. Despite his reputation, I’ve never really connected with Ayckbourn in my limited experience of his work, the revival of Snake in the Grass being a notable exception, and not even a truly stellar cast could rescue Season’s Greetings for me at the National. But the Union have a strong track record in creating effective small-scale productions and so I was intrigued to see how this would go.
Spread over 12 years, Joking Apart visits blissfully happy couple Richard and Anthea in their back garden at four-yearly intervals, following their relationship with the friends and neighbours around them and how those connections alter over time. From Bonfire Night in 1970 to a balmy summer Friday evening in 1982, with a Boxing Day and a random Sunday morning inbetween, we see how they interact with the earnest vicar and his highly strung wife, Richard’s Scandinavian business partner and wife, and his junior colleague Brian with his succession of young girlfriends.
It actually emerges as quite a dark story. Though the central couple are (rich and) happy, that happiness is starkly contrasted with the various dissatisfactions of the lives of those around them, indeed caused by them. There is humour in here, much of it deriving from Kingsley Hall’s costumes which include some outrageously short shorts and sharp shoulder pads and the amusing array of women that Brian dates, all impressively played by Antonia Reid, and the clever use by director Ben de Wynter of the off-stage-left area as the tennis court from which we hear all sorts of antics.
Ayckbourn is more concerned though with the excruciating awkwardness that comes from the deterioration in these friendships, as ambitions are frustrated, jealousies pervade and passions stifled. The flashpoints that come, in Andrew Obeney’s bitter explosion as the envious workmate or Jamie Richards’ desperate declaration of love for the woman next door, are expertly done in fabulously cringe-inducing detail, especially in the face of Jamie Kenna and Claire Marlowe as the obliviously unaware central couple, full of chirpy breeziness.
But to my mind, there is too much focus on the awkwardness which isn’t sufficiently contrasted with something else to underline its effect. I didn’t really find the play to be as funny as I wanted it to be; and at times, the production loses its clarity. Without the programme, I don’t think I’d’ve clocked we’d skipped four years as Scene Two started and there was little attempt to convince that it was Boxing Day in the third scene, one character even decided to take his coat off despite being outside – small things, but ones that stuck out for me. By and large though, this is a very accomplished production, it’s just a shame I didn’t think the play was particularly deserving of it.