Written a decade after Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1978 play pivots around a similar theme: the fine line between being pleasant and being virtuous. The action is set in Richard and Anthea’s ample garden (complete with tennis-court fence and rackety wooden pavilion; Michael Holt’s design). Here, this charming couple, born with advantages social and personal, generously press their good fortune upon their guests. Over four gatherings spanning 12 years, we see them, their neighbours (vicar Hugh and his wife, Louise), business partners (Sven and Olive) and friend-cum-colleague (Brian) grow into middle age. As Richard and Anthea’s blessings increase, their guests become ever-more embittered; envy of their hosts curdles their existence.
The core of the play seems at first to be this exposition of the guests’ intensifying, self-diminishing churlishness. But gradually another possibility opens up. Do Richard and Anthea need to impose their generosity in order to enjoy their privilege? Is their seeming goodness achieved at the cost of their guests’ sense of self-worth?
As Ayckbourn says in a programme interview, Joking Apart has “a delicate balance between the sad and the funny… it’s really quite tricky to get right”. Directing it here for the fifth time, he brings it off – but not alone. His splendid ensemble includes Laurence Pears and Frances Marshall as Richard and Anthea, radiating contentment; Louise Shuttleworth, spiky vicar’s wife, righteously disagreeable, and Leigh Symonds’s bumptious businessman, Sven, defeated, deflated, ignored.
- Joking Apart is at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, until 4 October