Theatre Royal, Windsor
23 June 2015
‘A Man’s tragedy is often not that he fails, but that he almost wins.’
Sheltering right under the curtain wall of Windsor Castle is the lovely Edwardian Theatre Royal, whose graceful cream, gold and plush is currently home to a short sequence of high-quality plays that valiantly recreates for a brief while the spirit of collaborative repertory theatre. One element of this short season is a highly welcome revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart, a play that has had relatively few productions since an unsuccessful London premiere back in the late 70s.
This is one of Ayckbourn’s darker comedies, focused on the destructive, corrosive impact of jealousy and envy. At the centre of it all are one couple, Richard (Chris Casey) and Anthea (Stephanie Willson), who are the embodiment of goodness, talent, good looks, professional accomplishment, bonhomie, and community spirit. Around them gravitate their friends all of whom are increasingly unhappy and whose relationships become increasingly dysfunctional while Richard and Anthea stay radiantly unchanged. There are two acts and four scenes, with the action set in the back garden of Richard and Anthea’s home and spread out over twelve years in all, alternating between winter and summer seasons.
As Ayckbourn himself notes in the programme, there’s always been a problem over how to make undifferentiated goodness dramatically interesting. Just as Milton’s God is boring in comparison with the anguished, many-layered characterisation of Satan, so it is hard to make a compelling play out of the contented marriages of beautiful and successful people. His way of addressing this problem is to focus attention not on Richard and Anthea themselves, but on the actions and reactions and accumulated resentments of their friends. So the emotional focus of the play is intriguingly de-centred towards the neighbours, the local vicar and his wife, Hugh (Anton Tweedale) and Louise (Natalie Douglas), a business partner, Sven, (Alec Fellows-Bennett) and his wife Olive (Lou Lou Mason), and an old friend of Anthea’s, Brian (Gary Roe), who appears with a succession of identikit girlfriends, all played by Grace K. Miller. We proceed through the familiar sequence of middle-class social rituals accumulating information about the past lives and present preoccupations of the characters while the emotional undercurrents run stronger and the tensions between the characters become more desperate before breaking open into confrontations that are crafted to be intensely comic and poignant at one and the same time.
Timing and pace are vital in Ayckbourn’s plays. When they are right the play works like an exquisite clockwork mechanism, but when it does not the results can run the risk of seeming inconsequential and pointless. The boundary between intoxicating success in this repertory and flat-footed failure is perilously narrow. In the first half of the evening I was concerned at times that we would fall the wrong side of the line, and began to think, as I often do, that Press Nights would be better placed later in a play’s run once things have settled into a groove. At the start things went too slowly and the cast were just fractionally complacent on their cues and in their acting off the speech. I clearly was not alone in thinking this, judging from this exchange I overhead at the interval between two audience members who could have passed for Ayckbourn characters:
Husband: ‘We’ve been here an hour, dear, and nothing’s happened!’
Wife: ‘Nothing ever does happen in his plays until someone gets pissed!’
This turned out to be true – as so often in Ayckbourn it is indeed alcohol that in the second half looses tongues destructively and allows the accumulated resentments of years to overflow in excoriating fashion. But by now the pace was perfect and the play moved with force and intensity to its stark delineation of the truth of the line I have excerpted at the head of this review. Beneath the surface of the simple passage from youth to middle age lies many a bleak acceptance of compromise and failure all the more dark because the professional and personal failures were in fact very near misses.
When you see the text on the page it looks flat and thin – just as is the case with Coward. There is little surface wit or word play. But the text is just the starting point – an outline to be completed and given life by the actors. This must be one of the reasons why actors love to play these roles – because there is so much room for creative invention and interpretation. You can see immediately that Ayckbourn started off as an actor himself. He gives the actor a framework of a stereotype and from that a chance to create a unique, nuanced individual. The writing has set the interplay of character in motion with great precision, and needs to be treated with care and respect, trust and accuracy; but within that structure there is real freedom too. The cast is to be congratulated on grasping these opportunities to the fullest extent.
As Richard and Anthea, Casey and Willson in some ways have the hardest task. They are charming, good-looking, irritatingly successful in all to which they turn their hands, the munificent hosts to all the parties that frame the action. But they also have to be the still centre around which action happens. They successfully convey a sense of blithe unawareness of the problems, reactions and sensitivities of others that is all too recognizable as one of the consequences of uninterrupted victories from an early age and ability to get what you want without trying very hard. In this sense they are not quite as perfect as Ayckbourn supposes, but they are perfectly plausible.
As the bumbling, gauche, parish priest, Tweedale is very effective. He makes the most of the emotionally stilted, cliché-ridden Anglican rhetoric in his part and becomes very affecting when he channels raw emotion through it. Douglas charts the mental disintegration of his wife, Louise, with a fine display of physical awkwardness that aptly embodies her increasing sense of social helplessness in the face of her neighbours’ relentlessly efficient goodwill. Fellows-Bennett develops a fine character-study in barely suppressed alpha-male jealousy, and takes his character from being a stock Scandinavian comic foil through to a detailed depiction of first resentment of a rival, and then to a raging against defeat worthy of Mark Antony. Mason has less to do as his wife, but still conveys well her own panicky jealously of Anthea, and her pathetic attempts to bolster her husband through endorsing his critique of Richard. Roe’s part is less well developed than the others, but he makes the most of one particular speech which touchingly reveals his life-long love for Anthea: as so often in Ayckbourn the damage depicted on stage has actually been done long before, and we see the delayed reactions. Miller has the tricky task of playing similar young jejune blondes throughout the play; but she neatly distinguishes between them, as well as providing the voice of a younger generation at the very end, where as the daughter of the house she symbolically refuses to engage in the battles and alliances that have surrounded her parents in the previous twelve years.
As with so many theatres of a certain age, the bar at the Theatre Royal is proudly lined with photos of bygone productions from the golden age of repertory theatre; and there, sure enough, were the production shots of a 1986 production of this very play, Joking Apart – all duffle coats, cravats and tweed jackets, floral print dresses, and big, frizzy hair-dos, taking you straight back to the 1970s. But the lesson of this fine production is that this is a timeless play that holds up as true a mirror to our foibles now as ever it did before.