CHARACTERS come first and plot second in most of Ayckbourn’s masterpieces.

CHARACTERS come first and plot second in most of Ayckbourn’s masterpieces.

Joking Apart, while not a huge hit in the West End, is no different.

A middle-class tale in the typical Ayckbourn style, it is set in a world of tennis courts and drinks on the lawn. Richard and Anthea, an unmarried couple both previously divorced, are the hosts at the centre of this bizarre maelstrom. They seem to draw all their friends, acquaintences and neighbours into their circle and, as time passes, gradually suck the life out of them.

How does this happen? Because they are so alarmingly nice – and successful. The four scenes are each set four years apart, giving enough time for the strains in the relationships to develop clearly. Richard’s business partner Sven (from Finland not Sweden) is gradually being left out of the decision making and increasingly resents it – as does his other half Olive – although trade is booming.

Neighbours Hugh, the village’s nervous new vicar, and his neurotic wife Louise are totally overpowered by Richard and Anthea’s generosity of spirit and alarming enthusiasm.

Meanwhile Brian, Anthea’s long-term friend and Richard’s man about the office, appears with a succession of unsuitable girlfriends and sees their relationships fall apart amid the succession of lunches and dinners.

The scenes focus on occasions where levels of stress and drama can be at their highest: Bonfire Night, a hot summer Sunday, a rainy Boxing Day and the night of an 18th birthday party. Yes, Ayckbourn manages to wring every last drop of excruciatingly uncomfortable wining and dining from each possible situation. While we don’t ever get to see any of the young children, we learn of their development, reflecting their parents views on life.

Hugh and Louise’s little son goes from biting his father and raging at his mother, to becoming a chess prodigy who just ignores both his parents. Richard and Anthea’s two are mischievous but just as adorable it seems.

When at the end Sven, played by the excellent Alec Fellows-Bennett, says of their eldest, Deborah, “You weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you had a whole canteen of cutlery”, the jealousies are completely laid bare.

The pair to make you wince the most though are Louise and Hugh, thanks to a combination of terrific acting by Natalie Douglas and Anton Tweedale, Ayckbourn’s great script and, I should imagine, some careful direction from Andrew Beckett. Douglas makes every move with precision, bowed head, small steps, ineffective loss of temper – a perfect study of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The total contrast with the confident, optimistic and bouncy Anthea, portrayed with skill by Stephanie Wilson, sums up what the play is all about.