Joking Apart: An Interview with the Author

On 12 January 1978, the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.

Long since regarded as a classic of the Ayckbourn canon, the play transferred the following year to the West End with a production starring Alison Steadman, Christopher Casenove and Julian Fellowes long before he achieved international fame as the creator of television’s Downton Abbey.

To mark the anniversary of Joking Apart, the blog has an interview with Alan Ayckbourn con ducted with his archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, in 2018 for the 40th anniversary revival of the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn during rehearsals for his 2018 revival of Joking Apart with Jamie Baughan, Laurence Pears & Francis Marshall (© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

Joking Apart: An Interview with Alan Ayckbourn by Simon Murgatroyd

Simon Murgatroyd: You’ve frequently mentioned Joking Apart is one of your personal favourites of your own writing, what makes it so endearing to you?

Alan Ayckbourn: It is one of my favourites. Looking back on all my plays, I don’t really have a single favourite. But the ones I like most are the ones that are done the least or don’t quite do as well as they should – like Joking Apart. They’re my little orphans and Joking Apart is a play for which I have a particular affection. It’s also an interesting piece to get absolutely right. It’s got a very delicate balance between the sad and the funny. In writing it, I was obviously quite pleased to get this balance right, but in production, it’s really quite tricky to get right.

You wrote Joking Apart in 1978, what was the original inspiration behind the play?
The initial inspiration was realising that my eldest son was then 18, able to vote and buy me a drink. The passage of time suddenly caught up with me! I think with Joking Apart I began to feel my age.

There’s also the story you wrote it as a result of someone complaining you only wrote about miserable relationships.

Yes, having written about so many unhappy couples, I was challenged to write a play about a really happy, contented couple. The result was Richard and Anthea. But, as always, I became far more interested in what this blissful happiness did to the people around this couple. It’s really a play about winners and losers.

Was it a challenge writing such a contented couple?

Definitely. As any dramatist will tell you, the most difficult thing in the world is to mine anything dramatic from a contented couple. Two people gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes can become a trifle tedious after two hours! So Richard and Anthea became the catalysts around which everyone else revolved with all their flaws, frustrations and failures as they struggled to compete or just cope with this golden couple.

A scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s 2018 revival of Joking Apart at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (©Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

How would you describe the play as it has – as you noted – light and dark running throughout it.

It’s still a comedy, but it’s a comedy which deals with jealousy and it’s about people who are ultimately destroyed by envy. I remember someone coming from the BBC to see it and they said, ‘I came to see what I thought was a light comedy, but I stayed to see a light tragedy.’ I think that’s a good description.

The play is also notable for being the first of yours with an extended time-span – 12 years in total – what led you to that choice?

Generally speaking, the rule is to try and tell a story within the shortest period you can. If you can condense events into a short space of time, it binds your drama together and gives a sharpness and focus to the play. However, by looking at these characters over such a length of time, you get what could be termed a ‘long lens’ feel. You are – in effect – placing your audience at a distance from the action and they are watching it, as it were, in ‘long shot’ and can see whole lives unfold. The reason I chose the ‘long lens’ for Joking Apart was I hoped to show what the passing of time does to people; we get a sense of the characters lives a little bit more clearly. We see them in perspective with what’s happened around them and, of course, how age affects and changes them.

Joking Apart is set in a garden, but is it true the original 1978 production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round featured real grass?

I recall our designer budgeted it and discovered it was cheaper to lay real turf than buy astroturf! It was a truly atmospheric set with real trees and real grass and all the accompanying insect-life that came with it! Robin Herford, who played Brian, was sprawled out on the grass one night and came face to face with a centipede!

Joking Apart is also notable as being one of your rare West End misfires, running for only four months, why do you think that was?

I remember it was an enormous success in Scarborough and worked a treat. The designer David Millard gave us this marvellous set and you really felt the seasons come and go as we all – actors and audience – sat there together in this garden. When I directed it in London, despite a couple of wonderful performances, it didn’t recapture that feeling. I don’t think it worked in the proscenium – some plays, I think, are best left in-the-round.

It’s more than forty years since Joking Apart premiered, do you still believe it’s relevant to audiences today?

I’ve previously said that, in an imperfect world, the unremittingly perfect can prove just as much a source of unhappiness as it can happiness. In the end, we tend either to attempt to destroy such perfection or reduce it to our level; destroy ourselves through envy or vainly and fatally attempt to compete. Joking Apart will, I suppose, remain relevant so long as there are people who resent being created unequal and who can never find it in their hearts to celebrate the good fortune and accomplishments of other people.

You can find out more about Joking Apart at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

Article copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder. All photographs copyright of Tony Bartholomew, please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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