Joking Apart

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until 27 Oct

We’re familiar these days with the problem of people looking at the happy, exciting lives of others on Facebook and feeling like failures in comparison. The difference in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart – written forty years ago, and currently revived at The New Vic – is that the happy couple at the centre of his play aren’t faking or ‘bigging it up’.

At a bonfire party on Guy Fawkes night in the opening scene, Richard says matter-of-factly, “It’s burning really well this year.” We soon learn that everything tends to go well for Richard and his partner Anthea. She can eat and eat and never lose her figure. He can make irrational business decisions that nevertheless make loads of money. Without effort they raise two easy, pleasant children.

But as Ayckbourn explains in his programme note, “It’s the hardest thing to mine anything dramatic from a contented couple.” Enter business partner and egotist Sven and his snipingly acquiescent wife Olive; next-door-neighbours Hugh and Louise, insecure and hopeless parents; embittered old friend and employee with hidden resentments Brian, with his string of tag-along girlfriends.

Richard Stacey (Brian) and Naomi Petersen (Mandy)              picture Tony Bartholomew

In a series of  events hosted by Richard and Anthea – a midsummer garden party, a boxing day tennis match, daughter Debbie’s 18th birthday party – their guests have ample opportunities to experience their carefree charm and unbridled generosity. And over time we witness these lesser mortals in various downward spirals, some of them ridiculously self-inflicted, some seeming painfully inevitable.

From left, Richard Stacey, Jamie Baughan, Frances Marshall, Laurence Pears, Leigh Symonds, Liz Jadav, Naomi Petersen                                                      pic Tony BartholomewIt’s all very cleverly achieved and entertaining. Like in the best of Ayckbourn, his humour treads a skillful line between painful and funny. Awkward silences sometimes say it all, sometimes a couple of words are needed: after a long and deeply considered declaration of love from vicar Hugh, Anthea simply says “Oh God!”

Somewhere around that point – or when Richard deliberately loses at tennis to an unsuspecting Sven by playing left-handed — the happy couple at the centre become problematic. How can such “very good people” provoke such very bad responses? When does selfless generosity become strangling? Happy doesn’t equate with innocent, however virtuous Anthea’s smile.

Alternating with Joking Apart at the New Vic is Ayckbourn’s new play Better off Dead. The playwright’s 83rd play features a writer of crime novels working on his 33rd. It includes a deliciously funny exchange with a journalist who usually does obituaries (“In my case you’re a trifle early”). And there’s an admission of love from his senile wife, believing she is on her way to his funeral, that is beautifully crafted and deeply poignant. Fans will be delighted.

Christopher Godwin and Liz Jadav in Better Off Dead                      pic Tony Bartholomew