Ayckbourn Talks: Joking Apart - Post Show Q&A (2018)

This page contains extracts from the post-show Joking Apart Question and Answers with Alan Ayckbourn and company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on 9 August 2018. All the quotes are Alan Ayckbourn's own.

I wrote
Joking Apart in 1978. In the canon, it’s sort of middle period. It was at a time when I was rather fed up with my reputation of being the fun man of the West End and so I decided to write this play with slightly more depth to it. Partly because I had decided to explore character rather than situation. If you explore character - as anyone who has written will tell you - you’re bound to encounter a bit of darkness along the way; most of us have a dark side. I began to discover darknesses in my characters in the early plays such as Just Between Ourselves and Absent Friends, which were particularly dark. I was looking for the happy medium really, I think, balancing the comedic with the dark and I felt with Joking Apart, I got pretty near to what I wanted. So this was a sort of cornerstone play for me, a turning point. I was able to carry on and write my comic-serious plays like Man Of The Moment, A Small Family Business and they all stemmed back to Joking Apart.

I got compared, quite early on, with the quite considerable American comic writer, Neil Simon, and I was sort of known for some time as being the English Neil Simon which was a huge misnomer, because you can look at my scripts and if you can find a joke on the page, you’re doing very well. In Simon’s plays, they’re dotted with one-liners and he’s a very witty, sharp, New York, Jewish writer. All my humour springs from the words ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It really stems back to the character, which is the sort of thing I like to write. The sort of comedy that we share with you but we don’t throw it at you.

Writing for theatre-in-the-round comes naturally to me. My first play was written for in-the-round and 82 plays later I’m still writing for it. I wouldn’t know how to write for the Proscenium Arch. Although I have tried. I guess my record has always been my plays start here - this theatre or its previous two incarnations. All the round does is create a team - this play is a team play, it’s an eight-hander and each actor has a very important part to play in it. That is dictated a little by my style but mostly by the round itself. It doesn’t allow anyone to upstage the others. It doesn’t allow one to have a strong position where everyone else is in weak positions. Every angle of this medium favours someone, even the non-speaking members. I know that some of our audience do return several times and want to see it from different angles - they want to see that different ‘camera’ angle and it’s very rewarding. I acted in-the-round it for a very long time and it’s a very rewarding medium for the small part actor just as much for Rosencrantz, as much as it is for Hamlet. It’s a great medium for sharing and it dictates the way I write very strongly.

Why was Sven Finnish? Well, there were a couple of Finns in my life, both of whom - if I may use the colloquialism - pissed me off a bit. And I decided to gently get my revenge.

I haven’t changed a syllable of the script for this revival… actually, I changed one word. It was a reallocation of ‘Sausages’ for ‘Hello’. I bow to the props! I know not to change anything and I feel very strongly about that because I used to change everything, because everybody had a good idea for my plays. A very long time ago everyone would say ‘I’ve got a good idea for you,’ now that is not really smiled upon!

This has been - and this is not to spare their blushes - this has been the most perfectly balanced production of the four or five I’ve directed actually. You either get a Richard and Anthea whom everyone universally loathes or you get a silly bunch of people and you feel sorry for Richard and Anthea. I think I’ve got the balance more or less right now. Of course, you can swing from one side to the other. You can feel sorry for Hugh and Louise, for Sven or Olive, for Brian and his girl-friends or you can really root for Richard and Anthea. You can understand all sides. I think what I rediscovered in the play this time is the childish nature of Richard and Anthea. They have stayed children, which is why they have such wonderful children and why they’re such fun to be with. But they don’t really realise the damage they’re doing.

I like the actors to take the lead in rehearsals really. I’ve written the play and that’s my contribution, ‘what do you make of that folks?’ I may wave a bit from the wings and say ‘that’s not quite what I intended.’ But if you handpick a team of actors, you should let them get on with it because if you’re going to start playing all the parts yourself, it’s going to be extremely boring - and I’ve already done that while I was writing it when it’s a one man show.

I initially fell in love with this theatre - which, of course, was
Stephen Joseph’s brain-child and inspiration - and later on I began to fall in love with the town. Although I’m doubtful I will ever become a Yorkshireman in Yorkshire men’s eyes, I have lived here longer than most of them! I consider myself a naturalised Yorkshireman now. I’m very fond of Scarborough and I love the changing face of it too. In winter, its a very different place to the summer.

Scarborough keeps me in mind that theatre at the end of it all has to be fun. There’s a sort of fun keeping me at Scarborough, which is probably less fun than being in the middle of Birmingham. I think that however seriously I take my work, theres always an element that says, ‘come on and have some fun.’ It’s also a redeeming feature for me.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.