Just Between Ourselves: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Just Between Ourselves by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
Extract from ‘State Of The Nation’ by Michael Billington
Administrator's note: Michael Billington's excellent 2009 book State Of The Nation offers a fascinating look into British theatre since the 1950s including a number of insights into several of Alan Ayckbourn's most significant plays. In the extract below, he explores Just Between Ourselves offering an incisive commentary on the significance of the play in the Ayckbourn play canon.
Ayckbourn could be said, on the whole, to have had a very good Seventies in which he firmly established himself as both a popular commercial dramatist and an acute social commentator. Absurd Person Singular (1972) pinned down crucial shifts in the class system and the rise of the bustling, pre-Thatcherite entrepreneur. Absent Friends (1974) portrayed our social embarrassment in the face of death. Bedroom Farce (1975), proving that three beds are better than one, was a peerlessly funny study of what Schopenhauer called `the tyranny of the weak' and the capacity of the neurotic to impose their condition on those with whom they come into contact. But Ayckbourn's work, by his own admission, acquired a perceptibly darker tinge in the second half of the decade. He attributed this to the altered rhythm of the Scarborough season and the fact that he was now composing plays in January while North Sea storms howled around his house and slates cascaded from the roof. Possibly so. But one can't help wondering if the peculiar astringency of Just Between Ourselves, written in the gloomy winter of 1975-76, may have been subconsciously influenced by the darkening national mood.
Whatever the motivation, Just Between Ourselves picks up on a theme explored by Simon Gray in Otherwise Engaged: the English vice of emotional detachment. There is, however, one key difference. The chief victim of the distancing irony dispensed by Gray's Simon Hench is the man himself. In contrast Ayckbourn's hero, a bullish suburban hearty called Dennis, uncomprehendingly destroys those around him: in particular his lonely, mentally disintegrating wife, Vera. And it is this that lifts Ayckbourn's play into the realms of tragi-comedy. In the past Ayckbourn had shown the dark side of human nature but, as if keeping a shrewd weather-eye on audience expectations, had always managed to retrieve the situation. Here he resisted the temptation; and by doing so, as he himself said, 'I felt I took a large stride towards maturity as a playwright.' One particular scene, in which Vera (always addressed by her husband with the patronising diminutive of 'Vee') confronts Dennis in his garage and begs for help, is as good as anything in the Ayckbourn canon. It is not that Dennis is a monster. It is simply that, partly because of his upbringing by an omni-competent father and a ferociously possessive mother, he is emotionally deaf to Vera's desperation. Dennis is also an obsessive handyman who spends all his spare time in his garage disastrously tinkering with do-it-yourself projects: an astute piece of observation by Ayckbourn that suggests a causal link between home improvement and domestic disintegration. This reaches its apotheosis when Vera accosts Dennis in his cluttered garage and pathetically begs him for help:
Dennis: Yes, but don't you see, you're not being clear, Vee. You say help but what sort of help do you mean?
Vera: Just help. From you.
Dennis: Yes. Well, look, tell you what. When you've got a moment, why don't you sit down, get a bit of paper and just make a little list of all the things you'd like me to help you with. Things you'd like me to do, things that need mending or fixing and then we can talk about them and see what I can do to help. All right?
(Vera does not reply)
How about that, Vee? All right? Does that suit you? (Vera moves to the door)
(Vera goes slowly out into the house).
By the end of the play Vera has been reduced to a catatonic wreck while Dennis, his ogre-like mother and the neighbourly Neil and Pam, as if oblivious to her downfall, wanly sing ‘Happy Birthday'. It is as sombre an ending as you'll find in Ayckbourn and indeed in most modern drama. It is also a reminder that in the late Seventies the master technician edged closer to Chekhov and showed that he was capable of building laughter out of suffering.
Michael Billington, State Of The Nation, Faber, pp.274-276
Copyright: Michael Billington.