Relatively Speaking

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    Monday, May 20, 2013

    It's back to the 1960s with this revival of Alan Ayckbourn's play, originally commissioned by Stephen Joseph for the Library Theatre in Scarborough, and first performed there in 1965. Interestingly the play was originally entitled 'Meet My Father'.

    Apparently, Stephen Joseph instructed the writer (now Sir Alan Ayckbourn) to write a 'well-made' play, perhaps suggesting that some of the other offerings in theatres at the time were not quite deserving of that description. Whatever the reason behind the behest, Sir Alan obviously took the instruction to heart, because this an extremely 'well-made' play for which read 'well-crafted' and extremely clever.

    Ginny and Greg are lovers. It's early in the morning when we first meet them in Ginny's bed-sit in London. Greg is still in bed, and Ginny is getting ready to catch a train, supposedly so she can travel out of town to see her parents. The phone rings, but when Greg answers it the caller hangs up. And Greg finds other things don't seem quite right in Ginny's tiny living-space. There are bunches of flowers everywhere and 'petals in the kettle', and he discovers man-sized slippers under the bed and, later, a package arrives which turns out to be chocolates. Confused and suspicious, Greg is nonetheless enamoured enough to want to marry Ginny, and when she leaves for her parents' house, he decides to follow and put the marital proposition to her folks. However, Ginny is not visiting her parents. She has been having an affair with Phillip an older, married man, and she intends visiting him at his home in order to finally break-off the romance once and for all. But Greg gets to the house before Ginny, meets Philip's wife Sheila, and from thereon in a series of misunderstandings ensue.

    Felicty Kendal is the suburban housewife, Sheila, who is married to the philandering Philip. Ms Kendal is well-known in the UK for her role as Barbara in the BBC TV series 'The Good Life'. Her hubbie in that sitcom was Richard Briers, who coincidentally found early career success when he played Greg in the original London run of 'Relatively Speaking' back in 1967. Ms Kendal provides a flawless and captivating portrayal of a dutiful housewife who has to endure her husband's belligerent criticisms, even if she suggests she knows more about her husband's dalliances, than he might suspect. Jonathan Coy's Philip is a self-centred, pugnacious man who devotes more energy and effort to his gardening than his relationship with his wife. Kara Tointon is Ginny, the young secretary who seems to have taken full advantage of the sexually liberated atmosphere of the trendy 60s, and Max Bennett is the somewhat naïve and sexually inexperienced insurance clerk who wants to marry Ginny.

    I didn't quite believe that a young secretary would have the means to live in a bed-sit sporting such trendy wallpaper, even if she was being given financial support by an older lover, but Peter McKintosh's impressive and imposing detached house for 'The Willows' where Sheila and Philip reside, won well-deserved admiration from the audience.

    Bold at the time it was written, this play no longer holds any shocks in its portrayal of sexual relationships – even if my neighbour in the auditorium seemed a little taken aback by Greg being naked in the first scene. Today, the humour has to rely on the perceptive script and believable characterisations, and Lindsay Posner's polished and enormously entertaining production builds on both of these elements to great effect. The humour may be contrived, but it actually proves infectiously irresistible because the misunderstandings we witness are so intelligently and meticulously constructed. However, 'Relatively Speaking' is more complex than a simple comedy. Underlying the humour are issues about trust, honesty and commitment, so that even if we are no longer shocked by the sexual relationships the play exposes, there are still themes which are as challenging and relevant today as ever they were.

    (Peter Brown)

    "This early play is already tinged with a touch of Ayckbourn’s characteristic darkness. The comedy is so clever, and the laughter so frequent, that it is only at the end that one realises quite what a monster the philandering husband is...Brilliantly witty comedy. "
    Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

    "At times ripely amusing. Yet for all Ayckbourn’s craft it strains credibility, and too many of the jokes are predictable."
    Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

    "This is the play that in 1967 gave Alan Ayckbourn his first West End hit. Seeing it again after all these years, in Lindsay Posner's witty production, I was reminded of the play's brilliance as a theatrical construct."
    Michael Billington for The Guardian

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