Just Between Ourselves by Alan Ayckbourn

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BBC Radio 4, 13 September 2008

Several years ago I attended a seminar at the Globe Theatre, London (now the Novello Theatre) where Alan Ayckbourn was the honoured guest. The auditorium was full of his fans, who listened intently while the author talked about his concern for human relationships, focusing in particular on those women trapped within middle-class marriages to unfeeling husbands with no prospect of release. The critic Michael Billington presented a BBC documentary that made similar points; unlike several of his contemporaries, Ayckbourn really ‘understood’ women.


Listening to Gordon House’s adaptation of Ayckbourn’s 1977 success Just Between Ourselves, I understood just how much the social and political culture of Britain had changed over the last fifteen years. The play seemed like a relic from the 70s – a time when television screens were dominated by sitcoms set in white middle-class households (mostly in the Home Counties) where wives stayed at home and husbands went out to work, and weekends were spent either on DIY or socializing. At that time viewers seldom questioned whether such lives as portrayed on screen, actually bore any reference to their own existences: the huge ratings gathered by comedies such as The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles (both starring Richard Briers) prove this.


Thankfully life has moved on a lot since then. Suburban families are generally more multicultural now, while both partners within a marriage are likely to be working. Television sitcoms now encompass a broader range of themes, although turkeys set in suburbia like My Family still tend to crop up now and then. In this changed context, Ayckbourn’s characters tend to irritate rather than entertain. This is particularly true of Just Between Ourselves, where the central character Dennis (Stephen Crichlow) spends all of his leisure time in the shed, taking scant notice of his wife Vera (Samantha Spiro) while at the same time protesting that he is doing everything to make life better for them. He believes that emotional satisfaction can be achieved through physical objects; to make a nice shelf-unit, or to repair the garage door, will inevitably make Vera happier. Dennis is really in love with his aged mother Marjorie (Auriol Smith) who, like her son, believes that Vera can be ‘cured’ by giving her a bowl of soup. Listening to their incessant babble, I felt that both Dennis and his mother were nothing more than comic stereotypes. Ayckbourn doesn’t really probe their natures; rather he puts words into their mouth and expects us to laugh at them.


The same can also be said for Dennis’s near-neighbours Neil (Chris Pavlo) and Pam (Alison Pettitt) are equally myopic; Neil cannot express himself either emotionally or linguistically, while Pam makes no effort to conceal her contempt for Vera. They spar verbally with one another, and do the same with Dennis, while making no attempt to understand one another.


As far as Ayckbourn’s much-vaunted ‘understanding of women’ is concerned, to show a character like Vera sitting alone in the garden uttering monosyllabic replies in a vain attempt to escape the endless linguistic babble of her husband, family and neighbours, does not reveal any ‘understanding’ at all. On the contrary it re-emphasizes male dominance both in terms of the plot (where Dennis does all the talking) and in terms of the dramatist’s relationship to his characters (Ayckbourn doesn’t want his women to speak any more). In truth Ayckbourn was, and is, a fundamentally patriarchal writer, who refuses to write about anything except the suburban milieu of the late twentieth century, where gender roles were clearly defined and women either had to accept such roles or go mad. His plays now seem outdated – period pieces rather than living breathing works.