Joking Apart is a comedy with bite

Richard Stacey, Jamie Baughan,  Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Leigh Symonds, Liz Jadav, Naomi Petersen
Richard Stacey, Jamie Baughan, Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Leigh Symonds, Liz Jadav, Naomi Petersen

The second play in the summer season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre is a revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart – first performed in Scarborough 40 years ago.

Warmly received here, the West End proved harder to please and, though it won the 1979 Plays and Players Best Comedy Award – it closed after four months.

Perhaps people expecting a classic Ayckbourn comedy found this atypical. The basic building blocks are there – suburban middle class mid-lifers tackling middling crisis.

Except at the centre of Joking Apart are a happy couple – Richard and Anthea. There is no infidelity, unrequited lust or yearning for greener grass.

Instead, they unwittingly and, largely, unknowingly are the catalyst for hate and envy, jealousy, bitterness and ultimately a breakdown of one of the characters.

As the characters around the golden couple, in one way or another, disintegrate, there’s not much to laugh at.

Though there are some great one-liners and laugh-out-loud comedy moments – largely round tennis matches – the tone is darker and more tart than last season’s Ayckbourn revival Taking Steps.

The action takes place over 12 years in the garden of the home of Richard and Anthea.

During that time they host a bonfire night do, a midsummer gathering, a Boxing Day soiree and a birthday party.

He is a successful businessman and all-round good sport.

She is a stay-at-home mother of two well-balanced children, a girl and a boy.

She is slim, pretty, good natured and a hostess who lavishes her guests with attention, food and drink.

It is their kindness that grates and irks and their success at business and parenthood that sparks jealousy and insecurity.

Those who measure themselves against Richard and Anthea find themselves wanting – and no matter how accepting the couple are of their friends and their foibles, resentment festers leaving something nasty – and yet satisfying – at the heart of Ayckbourn’s comedy.

The play turns the cliche cruel to be kind on its head.

Ayckbourn is well-served by an eight-strong cast.

Laurence Pears embodies the joie de vivre of the easy-going Richard. He is perfectly paired with Frances Marshall who brings a perpetual air of joy to her Anthea.

Jamie Baughan is adorable as Hugh, the love-struck vicar whose crush on Anthea leads him to have a crisis of faith.

Louise Shuttleworth plays to perfection his highly strung wife Louise. Their loveless marriage and unloving, son (talked about but never seen) is the pathos at the centre of this play and what makes it a heart-breaker.

The laughs and scene-stealing belong to Leigh Symonds as Richard’s Finnish business partner Sven – whose efforts to compete with Richard lead to a physical breakdown.

His way of saying ‘my darling’ to his doting wife Olive, played Liz Jadav, makes it sound like ‘stupid cow’ – and it’s funny every time.

Richard Stacey seethes and shakes with resentment as Brian – who is also in love with Anthea.

Naomi Petersen plays Brian’s succession of girlfriends – from serious-minded Melody to punkish Mo. Her artist character – Mandy – drawing a snake in the grass is the play’s symbolism and a nod to the fact that when Joking Apart was revived in 2002, Ayckbourn’s Snake in the Grass was that season’s new play.

It’s complex, funny, thought-provoking and ultimately sad.

It is in rep until October 4.

Tickets: 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com