Just Between Ourselves: Character Notes by Alan Ayckbourn

The following article, drawn from correspondence with the playwright, offers an in-depth insight into the characters of Just Between Ourselves and their motivations.

The point about Dennis is he is what he is. What he is is pretty awful admittedly, sometimes. But his defence is that he doesn't know it. If he could sit at the back of the stalls and watch himself (supposing he even recognised himself) he'd be staggered at people's reaction to him. He's genuinely doing his best to spread cheer and goodwill to all men - and women.

His fault is that - like many of us - he edits his life as he goes. Removes the bits that don't quite fit with his view of the world as it should be. In reality - despite his bonhomie - he's as frightened of the world and people as Vera. His garage is his sanctuary. Strangers are to be feared. The only way he can deal with them is to sort of smother them in trivia and small talk. Anything rather than let them in to his life where they might threaten and even involve him. As a small boy he long ago put his real feelings away in a box.

During the course of the play, I think Neil becomes as close a friend as Dennis ever has or ever will have. But, of course, he remains as distant as the planet Neptune and the only reason he gets as close to Dennis as he does is because of his non-threatening nature.

Pam on the other hand terrifies the life out of Dennis. She represents intrusion and disruption. Doubt and uncertainty. She makes as if to question the status quo. She also represents, worst of all, sex. Which terrifies Dennis, too. Vera suffers primarily from a lack of cuddles.

When he talks to Vee about her problem in Act II he genuinely wants to help. He gives her his full, undivided attention. He wants to see her happy. He listens carefully. We are all holding our breaths (not least of all her) that this time he may see what the problem is. Then his proposed solution when it comes is all the more devastating. Here then is not a man who is refusing to listen and whom we suspect doesn't care. Here is a man who listens and just doesn't understand a single word she's saying. But nevertheless reacts with genuine kindness.

Likewise with Pam. Another person who brings him a problem. Hopefully, thinks Dennis as he settles down to listen, to do with a faulty cistern, perhaps. Maybe some advice on lagging central heating pipes. Pam knows enough about Dennis to know this is what he's expecting. She reels off her list of complaints about life and herself - underlining each one with an almost masochistic, overstated glee. She wants to make his eyes water. She does. For once Dennis is lost (momentarily for words). She has brought up matters that are never ever normally discussed. She plays on this, teasing him, sensing instinctively where she knows him to be most vulnerable and uncertain, i.e. sexually. It's, of course, a classic female drunken symptom, that. A sudden almost vicious attempt to embarrass and debase. Both him and her. To cut the frilly female niceties and all that male crap and get down to basics. She's come to see herself, after all, as the whore of Babylon. OK lets go for the least attractive person I can possibly imagine. Good old Dennis. With any luck we'll both have a bad time.

Finally, Dennis is a man living his life to the best of his ability but somehow sensing, knowing if he lifted his eyes for a minute, that his world is collapsing. It's there in the last scene when we see him for what he is. A sad little man, still reciting the same, tired old ritualistic words about God being in his heaven and all being right with the world. The difference being that, by then, he is beginning to feel how empty the ritual has become. He is singing into the face of the oncoming storm. A future of total loneliness. Just him and his mother. Whom if truth be told he no longer cares for. Hasn't for years. Perhaps ever. It's his father he loves. Dennis's barrage of cheeriness towards his mother is a smoke screen, a diversionary tactic to prevent himself hitting her on the head with a hammer.

By the end Dennis is winding down. The end of the play is not only about the collapse of Vee - it's also the start of the slow death of Dennis.

As for Pam, it is harder in a sense to forgive her than it is Dennis. She knows what's happening. Or at least has the capacity to know and see what's going on in that house. She might even have helped. But in the end she is too caught up in what she sees as her own personal tragedy. The tragedy of the unfulfilled woman. She takes an almost vicious delight in bringing down Neil and all around her. Pam gives nothing. She's the sort of person best described on first meeting as heart-sinking. No humour - beyond a somewhat I-told-you-so, what-else-did-you-expect smile when life goes particularly wrong - any charm she ever possessed put firmly away long ago. Her maxim: life is no joke so what the hell are you smiling at.

She barely contributes socially. I suppose technically about two thirds of her performance should be thrown away. She has a lot of the attributes of the worst of those grim hard line feminists who glare accusingly from our TV screens occasionally. But none of the cause or commitment even. Those exchanges with Neil at the beginning in the garage are swift and almost unheard by us. Lightning affairs that we could easily have missed. Little exchanges of swift marital rabbit punches. This is a particular bad day for Pam - it's her birthday after all. She's going to make sure that Neil is sharing her misery. We are in the midst of an ongoing furious row that started at 6 am.

Later we see this is an almost normal state between them. At the start of scene two we see them alone, more open. Maybe we see the silences that exist between them more than we do at present. Never was a man made to suffer more for his failure to get it up. Neil's indigestion comes entirely from sexual guilt.

Later, Pam only half listens to Vee. I think her attitude here is that she, Pam, has long ago decided that no one in the world is worse off than she is. Vee may have her problems but compared with Pam they are minor ones. At least Vee is free to work and to get out. If she chooses not to, that's her concern. Whereas Pam is a prisoner. A slave to a child she doesn't (or at least refuses to acknowledge that she does even if she does) love.

I see Pam as a woman who has, if you like, had a bit of paint spilt on her and, rather than try to wipe it off, she's decided to make a real job of it and pour the whole pot over herself. Perhaps at present she's a bit too good to look at. For a woman who's trying to say to the world, caution: neglected and unappreciated wife. Who's she dressing up for, after all. She would like the world to know that she is a woman who has an undesirable body. According to her husband anyway....

It's interesting in the last scene how much they are all of them standing around lying. Neil, Dennis and Pam. None of them is really owning up to things as they really are. Moreover each knows the other is lying but each, equally, is prepared to accept the others' version simply because it's more convenient to do so, certainly than to go into the depths of other people's problems. An alternative title could well be I’ve Got Problems Of My Own, Mate.

Vera:
People who have been labelled clumsy quite often tend to become unwilling to express themselves at all. They hold it all in. They mistrust their own body to relate reliably to their surroundings, the objects around them. They approach the inanimate with grave mistrust. Likewise their own bodies which they utilise as little as possible. Clumsiness is a physical disease.

Her scene with Pam is about one woman filling a silence (Pam's). Pam is a far remove from the jolly giggly bunch at the supermarket. She's an intellectual (in Vee's eyes) and a bit feminist. Vee doesn't know what to say to her. Pam's not one of the girls. None of the conventional female reactions are forthcoming. Vee can't bear silence so she starts to talk about herself. It's meant to be social talk to fill a hole but she's not used to talking about herself much lately and inadvertently she gives away too much about herself. That scene especially is full of undertone.

That scene is our first close up of Vee - our first chance to see what we've all been laughing at in scene one. And why we shouldn't have been laughing. And that's important too, that we don't see too much of her 'tragedy' in scene one. She's a jolly little woman with a chauvinist husband, a woman who drops things now and then. But never is she presented as a chronic case history. No hint of that. She is, after all, on her best public behaviour. For Pam, Neil and us. We might not approve wholeheartedly of the Vee Dennis relationship but we should never really suspect that it's an unhappy one. Not at the start.

Marjorie is truly a woman that grows younger by the day. At the start she presents herself in attitude to be slightly more at death's door. A woman for whom a smile is a painful effort. One who has wandered unsupported through a long vale of tears. It would be nice to think that at the start the audience expect every scene to feature Marjorie's funeral. Some hope! Like all the characters she's not a villain. Merely a good woman that has had the ill luck to see her wonderful son married to an inadequate woman. What mother would have reacted otherwise?

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of Alan Ayckbourn.