Director: Michael Fox
Company: BBC Radio 3
Transmission date: 09/02/1990
Anthea: Pam Ferris
Richard: Malcolm Raeburn
Hugh: Peter Linford
Louise: Karen Drury
Sven: Nigel Anthony
Olive: Pam Buckle
Brian: John Branwell
Melody / Mandy / Mo / Debbie: Robyn Brunskill
Joking Apart is set in Richard and Anthea's garden over twelve years on bonfire night, a summer tennis party, boxing day and their daughter Debbie's 18th birthday. Richard and Anthea are a perfect unmarried couple, to whom everything comes very easily and whose genuine generosity, success and sensitivity seem to reflect badly on those around them.
Over the 12 years we see Richard's business partner Sven and his wife, Olive, become increasingly depressed at the ease of Richard's success, despite Sven working so hard he eventually has a heart attack which drives him to deep bitterness at the unfairness of life. Brian, an employee, has a constant string of young girlfriends, all of whom are substitutes for Anthea, whom he has been obsessed with since he gave her shelter after the break up of her first marriage.
Finally, there are the new neighbours, the vicar Hugh and his wife Louise. After Richard tears down the garden fence to make a larger communal garden for Hugh, the vicar misinterprets some interest in him from Anthea as a sign of love and he becomes possessed by the belief he is married to the wrong woman. His declaration of his love for Anthea leaves her genuinely confounded and helps drive Louise, combined with her inability to raise or communicate with her son, into manic depression.
All are left poorer people by their relationship with Richard and Anthea, who are left unaware that anything is wrong in their perfect world.
Of the plays he has written, Joking Apart is purportedly one of Alan Ayckbourn's favourites. It is not hard to see why: the story of a perfect couple and the unhappy way this reflects on the relationships around them is, arguably, a play with themes that will always be relevant. It is a play which seems to have become more appreciated with age.
The third of Alan's 'winter' plays, written during the Christmas period in Scarborough, it had none of the problems which had affected the writing of his previous play Ten Times Table. Indeed as far as the play goes, it seems to have had a very simple conception and realisation.
It was inspired by someone asking Alan why he never wrote plays about happy couples; of course the obvious answer is there is little drama in happiness and contentment. However, the idea caught Alan's imagination and he began to wonder if there was a play in the idea of a happy couple who act as a catalyst for the unhappiness and the failings of the couples around them. The perfection of Richard and Anthea's relationship merely serves to highlight the imperfections of everyone else's relationships.
The play was not only unusual for its portrayal of a contented couple, but also of its time-span. It is spread over twelve years allowing the playwright the luxury of showing these relationships in the long-term and the effects of actions over time. It is rare for Alan to set any plays over such a prolonged period of time and alone makes the play interesting.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd 2006
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