Alan Ayckbourn's 'Relatively Speaking', Wyndham's Theatre, London. May 2013
In the brief introduction of the play text for 'Relatively Speaking', Alan Ayckbourn's seventh play which was first produced in 1967, the writer concedes that the people who enjoyed the play initially described it as 'well constructed' and that those who didn't accused it of being 'old fashioned'.
Experiencing this West End revival it is easy to see why. A finely crafted piece of farcical, light theatre, it has all the necessary conflicts which are consequences of the many misunderstandings and lies that take place. The narrative is perfectly split between two acts with two scenes, and runs just nicely for two hours that fly by.
It is a slow-ish start which initially focusses on the younger of two couples living in a London bedsit. Max Bennett's character Greg tries to work out why he is finding men's slippers that aren't his, countless bouquets of flowers and the address of his girlfriend Ginny's parents written down on paper, in their apartment. Ginny explains rather frustratedly that she had written down her parents' address for a friend. The address of course is that of her older lover Philip, who is married to Sheila whom Ginny has never met. On the same day Ginny travels there to break off her relationship with Philip, Max too decides to make a surprise visit, and after the separate arrival of the younger pair to the country house in Buckinghamshire, all hell breaks loose. Sheila is not at church as Ginny believed she would be, and so each character is left to grapple with their own distorted view of the facts.
Despite Ayckbourn's tendency to be able to conjure up specific times and places, and to be instantly recognisable, he also experimented with differences, writing a wealth of contrasting plays, from the more complex ' Woman in Mind' to accessible comedies like 'Absent Friends'. He admits that 'Relatively Speaking' was the best example of him writing to order, a response to a request from the late Stephen Joseph, his theatre director at Scarborough. Joseph simply asked for 'a play which would make people laugh'.
Whilst being a light comedy, this play packs a punch in places, especially on the theme of infidelity. By contrasting housewife Sheila with the younger Ginny, we see glimpses of the emergence of women's liberation and the changing attitudes of the time. At one point Ginny starkly reminds her lover, as she braces herself to break off the relationship, that he wouldn't cope without his wife: 'Ask yourself as you're sitting there now, full of the breakfast that she's cooked for you, sitting in the sunshine, waiting for the lunch that's bound to be coming- and the tea and the supper.'
As was the case with last year's masterful West End production of Absent Friends, there is no doubt that Ayckbourn succeeded in his brief to make us laugh. In 'Relatively Speaking' it's the fine plotting and the sharp ironic twists that provide the laughs rather than the hilariously bleak observational humour of the former. Similarities certainly exist between the two; they are both set in the mid to late 20th century and both expose the subservient and put-upon housewife, through the characters of Di and Sheila. He also appropriately gives us characters in both who go against that conventional housewife model of the time: in 'Absent Friends' it's Evelyn, and in 'Relatively Speaking' Ginny, in both cases played convincingly and confidently by Kara Tointon, who seems to be becoming an Ayckbourn specialist.
The cast work a stellar performance. Particular mention goes to Felicity Kendal as Sheila whose comic timing and tone was faultless, but none of the four actors let the side down here. The only possible criticism of the show at all could have been of the opening scene, which was light on the knockout lines that come so thick and fast later on. It provided instead all the exposition required to set the tone for the hilarious complications that later ensue.
The show received a warm reception from a thrilled, middle class, middle aged crowd, who post show made reactions in the vain of: 'Doesn't she do well for her age?', referring to Kendal, who obviously ticked the famous face box for many ticket buyers.
In such a slick, concise and expertly written production such as this, celebrity is of no consequence. It's a high class piece of entertainment that in all honesty should attract people from all walks of life, of all ages.
James' book 'Shot and a Ghost' is available from willstrop.co.uk or on kindle