Just Between Ourselves: London Premiere Reviews

Just Between Ourselves is a significant Ayckbourn play and it is insightful to see the variety of responses it generated from the London critics during its West End premiere, many of whom were still intent on pigeon-holing Alan as a farceur. Extracts from this production are reprinted below.
For a play which is now considered a classic of Alan Ayckbourn's early canon and a defining work in his maturity as a tragi-comic writer, the London reviews of Just Between Themselves are wildly mixed from harshly critical to high praise. It is worth noting that the director Alan Strachan believes the production did not meet its potential and Michael Gambon has said that with hindsight he believed both he and Colin Blakely were miscast in the roles of Neil and Dennis. Alan Ayckbourn’s biographer, Paul Allen, has also adroitly noted a number of critics were unable to deal with a play which so bluntly dealt with mental illness and were unable to accept that by refusing to soften the impact of this, the playwright was not “laughing at mental illness” but dealing with the subject with a genuine compassion and seriousness.

Daily Express (Herbert Kretzmer)
“A play that constantly encourages laughter while attempting a moment later, to freeze it into horror. Ayckbourn’s play succeeds only partially in manoeuvring these swift changes of mood. It is, by the author’s own previously established standards, a slapdash piece of work, peopled by crudely designed caricatures of British middle-class types… but the characters of the men are not observed or written deeply or delicately enough. I left the theatre feeling cheated and manipulated. Back to the drawing board, Ayckbourn.”

Daily Mail (Jack Tinker)
“No playwright reflects our present era more astringently than Alan Ayckbourn…. As, with hindsight, we see Chekhov fixed the exact point of the world’s collapse, so Ayckbourn pickles us and our follies in the aspic of his clear vision. Yet never with more savage honesty than in this latest play. It is a major breakthrough in his writing. Unbearably funny as never before…. I suspect in time this play will be staged as sheer tragedy. Just as we misrepresent the intentions of Chekhov’s comedies. But it will endure because it is an unqualified masterpiece.”

Daily Telegraph (Eric Shorter)
“All this is related with comedy and punctuated with ironical comedy. The climax is a flashing display of coloured lights, just as a lighted birthday cake arrives to honour Dennis’s mother at the supreme moment of her bitchery - a capital coup de theatre…. Under Alan Strachan’s direction, the play begins slowly and takes time to disclose completely its bitter understanding of human cruelty and ineptitude. Mr Ayckbourn is here attempting a new kind of comedy, for which some of his admirers may not yet be prepared.”

Evening Standard (Milton Shulman)
“Alan Ayckbourn seems to be running out of ideas. His latest play appears to have been assembled from bits and pieces of other efforts. Once more it is the amiable inanities of English suburbia that provide most of the fun. One more the scenes are linked in a repetitive time sequence. Once more minor physical disasters get the big laughs. Once more the clowning is laced with a hint of social comment…. Looking back at the play, one realises that we have been chuckling most of the time at a pathetic case of mental illness and a family too thick to know how to deal with it. Ayckbourn may have intended only an ironic comment on a social problem. Or he may have meant to take a sharp swipe at the horrors of English marriage. But he clearly lacks the technical skill to convert mental instability or marital despair into a laughing matter.”

Financial Times (B.A. Young)
“Do not be deceived by his reputation, or by the laughter he prompts in the house, into believing that Alan Ayckbourn has written another comedy. Though it is conched in the comic style to which he has accustomed us, and is splendidly acted with every comic resource, it is desperately sad from the start…. Mr Ayckbourn has modulated from major to minor with skill. The end of the last scene is heartbreaking, and Mister Ayckbourn brings down his final curtain with no reservations…. I wouldn’t want my harping on the sadness of the play to seem discouraging. No writer, not even Mr Ayckbourn, can devote his life to writing nothing but farcical comedy. I am encouraged, myself, to see his invention taking a new turn.”

The Guardian (Michael Billington)
“Ayckbourn is here writing at his most mordant, about what Terence Rattigan once called the real vice anglais: fear of expressing emotion…. I have long maintained, in the teeth of much ridicule, that Ayckbourn’s plays amount to one of the most bilious documents on suburbia any Englishman has compiled. But in this play, he comes clean and smashes the household gods one by one: the spiritual impoverishment that often accompanies ‘home-improvement’, the ritual obeisance to motherhood, the Englishman’s treatment of his wife as some kind of labour-saving, domestic appendage.”

The Lady (J.C.Trewin)
“This is tragedy beneath the veil of comedy; and Ayckbourn does not lose courage at the last. There, on a bleak January morning, Vera sits in the garden. It is her birthday. She is in a condition of extreme nervous shock, able to say merely 'Yes' or 'No'. The play goes on round her, everyone behaving according to pattern. The dramatist refuses any final flourish and he is wise, for this is truth itself. That scene apart, much of the play has the Ayckbourn wit; it is the invention of a dramatist whose eyes and ears are in harmony, and who never blots his work by the coarseness that unwary writers regard as obligatory. I do not know whether
Just Between Ourselves will be as popular as his other plays; but it powerfully increases my respect for a fine and honest creator.”

The Listener
Just Between Ourselves proves less successful than Ayckbourn’s other plays, it is not just because of its sombre theme, but because his storytelling skills have for once let Ayckbourn down. The audience are led to expect a different kind of play from what they receive; and this is not so much an unfortunate backlash from Ayckbourn's reputation as a comedy writer, but because his technique, so brilliantly successful in farce, is inappropriate for his subject.”

New Statesman (Benedict Nightingale)
“And so we come, once again, to that last image, not at all what one expects from a ‘comic’ playwright: Vera speechless and motionless while her persecutors hover solicitously over her, assuring themselves she’s getting better: funny, and not the least funny. A poorer dramatist would either have trivialised the situation by ignoring the pain, or have ended by wringing his hands over it. Not many would ask for two contradictory reactions at the same time, leaving me, at least, unsure whether the side of my mouth was turned up or down. What Ayckbourn does is deepen his audience’s laughter, and I don’t think that could be achieved by a writer whose attitude to people was, as has sometimes been alleged against him, amoral or callous. On the contrary, this seems to me a pretty humane piece.”

Plays And Players (Julian Jebb)
“I think that Ayckbourn’s greatest gift is a sort of innocence. His astonishing skills at manipulating stage business (the use of props is equalled only by Osborne), his dead accurate ear, can distract us from what amounts to a visionary picture of English middle-class life. There is neither sentimentality nor censoriousness in this play. It does not seem in the least inappropriate to evoke Chekhov when writing about him. Like the master, he sees life as it is - and life as it ought to be.”

Punch (Sheridan Morley)
“I had the feeling I’d seen
Uncle Vanya rewritten by and for the Marx Brothers. By no means an uninteresting night.”

The Spectator (Ted Whitehead)
“Over the course of a dozen plays we have watched him [Ayckbourn] steadily closing in on his prey, and now, with
Just Between Ourselves I think he has made the kill. As plays involving marital collapse, alcoholism and catatonic withdrawal go, this one is quite funny, and occasionally hilarious…. Ayckbourn examines the petit-bourgeois lifestyle which in Britain is increasingly the ‘normal’ way of life. And he suggests, disquietingly, that suburban sanity, is actually a form of madness. The solid, steady, feet-on-the-ground citizen is actually a non-raving madman. In such a society an appetite for love, understanding or sexual fulfilment is highly dangerous and will lead to your removal to an asylum.”

The Stage (Douglas Blake)
“Alan Ayckbourn takes his audience by surprise in
Just Between Ourselves for just as everyone is settling down to what they expect to be a typically entertaining evening by our most brilliant writer of light comedy, the undertones of seriousness begin to take over from what comparatively few laughs there are…. There are laughs, as one would expect, but in my case I became profoundly disturbed by the effect of the other characters’ lack of understanding of Vera’s problems. Rosemary Leach plays her with sensitivity, making her seem the most genuine person in the play, cleverly hinting at the underlying stress until it finally possesses her and shocks one into realising this is no comedy.”

Sunday Mirror (Bernard McElwaine)
“Alan Ayckbourne [sic] has had eight hits in three years. But in
Just Between Ourselves he draws comedy seekers under false pretences…. Hopeless marriages and mental illness are about as funny as a broken leg.”

Sunday People (John De Pre)
“Devastatingly funny - and yet one detects a whiff of Chekhov-like tragedy about it.”

Sunday Telegraph (Frank Marcus)
“In the past ten years and as many plays Alan Ayckbourn has created a recognisable world of his own. It is suburban or provincial, exclusively domestic, and its puppet characters dance in exquisitely shaped patterns. All is not well in this world, but the author displays a benign attitude and the laughs are not malicious. In
Just Between Ourselves Mr Ayckbourn imitates Samson and brings the temple of his art crashing down. Things can never be the same again…. It will be fascinating to see whither he proceeds.”

Sunday Times (Bernard Levin)
“For although this most prolific of authors sets his scene and introduces his characters in a manner which leads is to believe that we are in for yet another of his farces,
Just Between Ourselves is not meant to leave us laughing; nor does it. It is not even a black comedy, but a bitter depiction of real people in real pain, and with it, Mr Ayckbourn has, with considerable courage, crossed a gulf wide enough to make even the best of his earlier work almost invisible on the further shore…. The verdict must be that with this play Alan Ayckbourn has grown up…. Alan Ayckbourn has gained an immense reputation with a series of plays in which puppets dance most divertingly on their strings. Here he has cut the strings and then stuck the knife into the puppets. They bleed.”

The Times (Irving Wardle)
“The production places full trust in the play's austerity. Each character is boldly and precisely drawn, leaving one free to observe exactly how they miss each other whenever they try to speak the truth…. This kind of comedy goes beyond laughter.”

Times Educational Supplement (John Peter)
Just Between Ourselves is a play about disconnected people whose marriages are forms, arrangements merely; their contents are pain, intensified by ignorance. Likewise, the form of the play is familiar enough, being that of the comedy of discomfiture: people fall into obvious traps, have stereotyped quarrels and preposterous misunderstandings, A man wants to sell a car but can't; another wants to buy it for his wife who doesn't want it.
“And yet one's hilarity is punctuated by uneasiness. Ayckbourn has subtly undermined the comedy by calling attention to its victim. Observe the skill with which this is done. Dennis tells his guests not to laugh at his wife when she spills the tea, as she cannot help it. She does spill the tea, and we do laugh - only to recall with painful embarrassment that she cannot help it, and then to see Dennis himself falling about laughing because he, poor thing, does find it funny. It is hard for you, sitting in your seat, not to feel that your impulse to laugh is as insensitive as Dennis's. This is an extremely funny play, yes; but, like many of Ayckbourn's previous plays, it takes a disconcerting, unflinching look at the destruction caused by lifelong immaturity; and it is also the subtlest demonstration of the basic cruelty of comedy I have seen since
Twelfth Night.”

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.