Interview: The Times (2018)

This interview was published in The Press on 2 August 2018.

Joking Apart, Why Comedy Is a Serious Business For Alan Ayckbourn

by Charles Hutchinson

Alan Ayckbourn is
directing Joking Apart for the fifth time [1] in its 40th anniversary production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this summer.

"The one with the tennis matches" was premiered in Scarborough at the SJT’s former home at
Westwood in 1978. "I wrote Joking Apart years ago - it was the nearest I’d got at that stage of my life to writing an autumnal play, about the sadness of getting older," reflects writer / director Ayckbourn.

"I was then approaching my 40s and feeling extremely old. I realise now, of course, that I was extremely young!" Ayckbourn is 79 and prolific as ever, his 82nd play,
Better Off Dead, on the runway preparing for take-off on October 6, and the next one in the book already.

The roots of
Joking Apart with its story of jealousy and misguided affections lies in a question Ayckbourn was asked. "It's a corny story that I've told so many times that it must be true that after the previous play [Ten Times Table], someone came up and said, 'I love your plays, they're really funny, but can't you write about a truly happy couple?'.

"I said: 'No. I need some abrasion between characters because people just smiling their smiling faces becomes tedious and the rest of us who don't live that way are thinking, 'Come on, say something to her or we'll become restless'."

Nevertheless, even though he considered happy couples to be boring dramatically, Ayckbourn mulled over the comment and set to writing
Joking Apart, a task he completed in five days in mid-December 1977.

"I decided to write about a golden couple in a big house, with children with perfect teeth, growing up happily, and then thinking about six other people who could get sucked into the perfect world of these good people," says Ayckbourn.

For happy couple Richard and Anthea, everything in life just falls into place, with their warmth, careless charm, generosity and business acumen. They invite their friends, neighbours and business partners to celebrate with them over the years: on Bonfire Night, at midsummer, on Boxing Day and eventually, at their daughter’s 18th birthday party, but gradually the others suffer by comparison.

"They crash and burn through misery, jealousy and misplaced love as this couple blaze through the play, relatively untouched by the mayhem they cause and aren't sympathetic when the others have problems.

"All the other characters are 'cracked', and in the 12-year-span of the play you get to see those cracks turn into fissures, so there's both a tragic theme and a comic theme."

The 75 minutes spent with Sir Alan was a chance to take a broader look at the art of writing, performing and directing comedies

"The solution to how to play Shakespeare's comedies, for example, is to play them seriously," says Ayckbourn. "Malvolio [in
Twelfth Night] once made people laugh, but now he's considered a tragic character because there's truth there."

Sven, the vainglorious Finnish company boss in
Joking Apart, is a case in point too. "Don't be afraid to be disliked: that's the other secret to playing a role because the audience might grow to like you," says Ayckbourn.

"If you take a character and you don't try to curry favour or try to make people laugh to curry favour, the audience may grow to love you because they see your weaknesses as well as your strengths, if you're open, whereas audiences are wary of people who try to con them."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn previously directed the world premiere of
Joking Apart (1978), its revival the same summer, the West End premiere (1979) and the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 2002 revival.

Copyright: Charles Hutchinson. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.