Relatively Speaking

Alan Ayckbourn
Theatre Royal, Bath and Kenny Wax
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Here is Britain in the mid-sixties, and showing two different lifestyles.

Sexually active Ginny is very much a girl of the swinging era living in a bedsit in London and with a chequered past, although the latest boyfriend, Greg, seems possibly the love of her life.

Residing at The Willows in rural Buckinghamshire are Sheila and Philip, a well-to-do, middle-aged couple contentedly enjoying a lazy al fresco Sunday breakfast in the sun, but all is not as it seems. It never is with Ayckbourn. Even aged 28 when he wrote this play, he was showing signs of his later work where a cosy domestic everyday scene is hiding dark secrets.

As the play begins, boyfriend Greg is just waking up in Ginny’s single bed and finding a novel way to preserve his modesty while Ginny is getting ready, she says, to visit her parents in the country. There is, though, a rather suspicious mystery. Why does Ginny have so many flowers and chocolates? Why is there a pair of size 10 slippers under the bed and why is Greg, who has already proposed marriage, not invited to meet her parents?

The first act is rather long and drawn-out with few jokes but setting the scene for the later unexpected arrival of Greg to The Willows unaware that this couple are not Ginny’s parents, and this is where the fun really begins.

There is a constant succession of misunderstandings and mistaken identities, a farcical situation, but so perfectly constructed that it appears quite plausible, especially when directed and timed perfectly by Robin Herford. It’s also very, very funny.

The older couple seem content enough at first, enjoying a leisurely Sunday breakfast in the back garden of their sumptuous home, but it soon becomes obvious that the marriage is under a slight strain, and there are mysteries here too. How is it that Sheila gets letters on a Sunday when there is no postal service, and why does Philip discourage her from accompanying him on his extended business trip—although we have our suspicions about that one.

Peter McKintosh’s sets are spot-on—the bedsit cramped, with utilitarian furniture and posters on the walls, while The Willows is depicted as a very pleasant house set in a huge hedged garden with charming patio. The front curtain is covered with a huge map showing the geographical distance between the two, as well as disguising the scene changes.

Lindsey Campbell is every inch the sixties young girl with her short shift dress and I’ve never seen anyone put on a pair of tights with such grace and speed, while Antony Eden's Greg is the innocent trying to please.

It is the older, well experienced actors though who engage the most. Robert Powell commands the stage as he blusters and connives his way out of trouble and Liza Goddard is perfection as a seemingly docile wife with an inner strength and her own secret. The facial expressions of all the performers are hilarious too as events get more and more confused.

Relatively Speaking had its world première in Scarborough in 1965 intended to provide something to cheer up holidaymakers on rainy days. It’s still cheering us up all these years later.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor