Hello again gentle reader, it’s been a few weeks since we met. How are you doing? Oh that’s great, me too. Yes, been away, on our travels. I know, what are we like? Right, that’s out of the way. Saturday 31st August 2013 saw the demise of a number of decent shows so Mrs Chrisparkle and I headed off to London to catch a final chance to see a couple of them. Back in May I remember thinking it was a shame that we couldn’t see the new production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at Milton Keynes because it was on during Eurovision week, the one week of the year when theatre has to take a back seat. Then it transferred to London for a short run and I rather forgot all about it. But there was a matinee shaped hole in our calendar for last Saturday so I bit the bullet and bought tickets. And I’m so glad I did.
In the hectic hassle-filled days of 2013, the countryside leafy garden breakfasts of 1967 seem a lifetime away; indeed many people don’t make it to their 46th birthday. Yet whilst there is a definite sense of naiveté to at least one of the characters, the repercussions of extra-marital how’s your father is a timeless theme, and I am sure that any audience member with a few guilty secrets of this genre will experience some squeaky bum moments during this play. This was Ayckbourn’s first really successful work, written at the request of Stephen Joseph (with whose name Ayckbourn’s work will always be inextricably linked), who wanted a play for Scarborough “which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies” – a quote from Ayckbourn’s introduction to the 1968 published edition. I’m sure it succeeded in that venture; and today it succeeds in packing out a Saturday matinee with nice middle class people who can rely on the writer’s and cast’s reputation for humour with a twist, but nothing too risqué.
The first scene takes place in Greg and Ginny’s London bedsit; the rest of the play on Philip and Sheila’s garden terrace in Lower Pendon, Bucks. The rather reassuringly Home Counties map that is used as a front curtain helpfully traces the railway route from London out towards Buckinghamshire that Greg and Ginny (separately) take in order to find this rural idyll; and I was delighted to see that the director Lindsay Posner had decided that Lower Pendon is the fictional name for Wendover, where I lived from the age of 5 till I got married. I can indeed endorse that if ever there were an idyllic rural Bucks village with a railway station, you couldn’t do better than choose Wendover.
But I digress. This is a superb revival of Ayckbourn’s deliciously constructed and tightly written play; fifteen minutes of scene-setting then an hour and a half of full-on non-stop talking at cross purposes which results in a high comedy of misunderstandings; with three people shuffling their guilty secrets and an innocent fourth person crashing into them all. One character’s deceptions appear to be fully revealed; another person you realise has an additional secret that you don’t find out about until the end; and a third person you are always unsure of, and that uncertainty continues post-final curtain. There’s enough suggested intrigue to keep you guessing and surmising long after you’ve arrived home.
It would be hard to imagine more perfect casting for this play. Sheila is played by Felicity Kendal; we’ve seen her in a few plays over the years but I don’t think she’s ever put in such a pitch perfect performance. She is totally convincing with her Home Counties niceness and she reminded me so strongly of the mothers of all my Bucks/Herts middle-class school friends, scattered throughout the Lower Pendon villages. Her comic timing is immaculate and her respect for and understanding of Ayckbourn’s words means they are delivered beautifully, wringing every last nuance out of them. Her character has a natural dizziness and you sense an additional faux-dizziness that she assumes when it suits her; but her genuine confusion at the situation in which she finds herself becomes yet a third layer of dizziness, and the whole combination is a complete winner. Her conversation with Greg about her not being Ginny’s mother still cracks me up.
Jonathan Coy, lynch pin of many a West End hit show, gives a great performance, accurately portraying the bullying business bighead for whom it’s perfectly OK to deceive but completely unacceptable to be deceived. It’s one of the most hilarious and intelligent performances of a comic hypocrite you’re every likely to see. Kara Tointon is terrific as Ginny, the rather fab 60s girl with a mini-dress stashed full of secrets who thrashes out as a form of defence when things get too tricky, but whose heart is in the right place – maybe. And Max Bennett is superb as the wide-eyed honourable innocent boyfriend Greg who can’t see the blinking obvious when it’s staring him in the face, and whose well-intentioned but ill-advised blunderings cause havoc to all around him.
When I was a student I wrote to Alan Ayckbourn for his opinion about theatre censorship, which was the subject of my (still-to-be-finished) thesis. He said that it “had very little effect so far as I was concerned, since by the time it was withdrawn in 1968 I was only, as it were, a fledgling dramatist, as yet too inhibited and too unadventurous to write anything that anyone could consider worth censoring”. It’s slightly ironic, therefore, that the opening scene of this production has Mr Bennett emerging from the bathroom naked, his frontal modesty protected only by two bunches of flowers and with no attempt to conceal his posterior. It was all done with great deftness, and it was indeed very funny; but it was another of those “let’s get someone to take their kit off even though there’s no real call for it in the script” moments. I can’t imagine the late Mr Richard Briers, the original Greg, flashing his buttocks to all and sundry; and indeed, I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would not have been amused.
This is but a minor quibble. It’s a terrific production of a play that still has the ability to make a packed audience laugh like drains. Superbly performed and put together, I’m really glad we finally managed to see it.