There’s a riotous classic Ayckbourn at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford this week. Relatively Speaking is as fresh today as it was in 1967 when it first took London by storm. Noel Coward hailed it then as a perfectly constructed light comedy and found it “very, very funny…” And so very English: the middle-class English fear of blunt speaking, their polite avoidance of upsetting strangers, is the basis for Alan Ayckbourne’s brilliant plot and dialogue.
This production has a brilliant cast headed by Robert Powell, who was so unforgettable as King Charles III in the play by Mike Bartlett at the Yvonne Arnaud earlier this year.
The scene moves to a manicured garden somewhere in the home counties where Philip and Sheila, an older couple, are struggling to communicate with each other. Their conversations about the quality of the breakfast marmalade and the weather are heavy with hidden meanings. The two story-lines soon collide.
Robert Powell’s Philip is a likeable but selfish husband, bored yet dependent on his wife. (I loved his jealous suspicions converted to an impassioned accusation that she’s “lost his garden hoe”!). Lisa Goddard as Sheila is absolutely charming, led open-mouthed into a fog of incomprehension. Her desperate ‘vamp-till-ready’ small-talk is a tribute to Alan Ayckbourn’s acute observation of verbal rituals and to her own impeccable sense of comic timing and stage-craft..
Lindsey Campbell’s dolly-bird Ginny is cute, smart and quick thinking, which makes the plot thicken when she’s cornered. Ginny and Greg have their own verbal rituals: banter turns to rows turns to erotic reconciliation, for these two love each other. Gauche Greg is no match for her cunning, of course. Antony Eden plays him for his youth and humour, optimism and child-like trust - the perfect foil for the machinations that go on around him. He's the only character without guile or secrets!
“Relatively Speaking” builds a comic situation on the gaps emerging in the sixties between the older generation and their children. It’s an ever more complex, fragile edifice of half-truths, lies and misunderstandings, a tangled web of deception spun by and among the characters: a continuous, hilarious riot of laughter. I felt for Robert Powell’s character Philip when he appealed to Sheila, ”Answer the question you’ve been asked and not the one you’ve made up in your head!”
The intricately constructed plot is like a machine in which every cog depends upon every other to drop into place in sequence. And at the end, there’s a cog left over and we laugh all the more! I never miss an Ayckbourn play if I can help it and this evening I realised why: Alan Ayckbourne is a comic genius and his plays are timeless.
I recommend the excellent programme's article by Al Senter (© John Good) for more background to the play.
A shorter version of this review with photos and links will be published by Essential Surrey online magazine.