Review: Joking Apart, Nottingham Playhouse, by Alan Geary
Over a long career Alan Ayckbourn's plays, which mainly concern middle-class relationships and anxieties, have gone in and out of fashion. At present they seem to be in.
In Joking Apart – it's not obvious why it bears this title – Ayckbourn looks at, for a change some might say, a happy relationship. The central couple just keep on getting happier. They're not trying consciously to be happy: it seems to flow as a consequence of their being kind and generous to friend and neighbour.
Ironically, at the same time, partly as a result of this goodness the relationships around them go from bad to disastrous. Instead of celebrating the good fortune and contentment of the fortunate ones, their friends grow bitter and envious, and more and more mediocre or worse.
It being an Ayckbourn, the piece plays about with time. The common-law marriage of Anthea and Richard is traced over the twelve-year period from Bonfire Night 1966 to a summer's evening in 1978; and so are the partnerships of the others.
All the actors are excellent, with stand-out performances coming from Emily Pithon (Anthea), Thorston Manderlay (Sven), Edward Harrison (Hugh) and Sally Scott (Louise).
Anthea is initially restless and hearty as if she's thinking about hockey, but later more sophisticated. The Finnish Sven – actually with what sounds more like a Swedish accent – is a slight caricature. Contrary and pedantic, and increasingly poorly, you expect him to die before the end. Hugh, massively aware of own incompetence and the failure of his marriage and his relationship with his son, is in the end pitiable. Louise neurotic, lonely, sexually unfulfilled, and contemptuous of her husband's ineffectualness as a vicar, has, at the end, tipped over into plain madness.
It's an attractive set, a realistic garden one, complete with proper tree, a summer house and a tennis court. But lots of the essential action happens just off-stage: Richard lighting fireworks – highly realistic incidentally – people receiving and returning tennis balls, annoying children. In the first part of the evening the little blighters are particularly grating even though you don't have to see them.
This is not a great play. It takes a while to build up momentum and it ends at what might appear an arbitrary point – the coming of age of Anthea's daughter. But it's quintessential Ayckbourn, and this particular production is distinguished by what appears to be impeccable direction from Lucy Pitman-Wallace.
Joking Apart is at Nottingham Playhouse till Saturday, 16th February