Relatively Speaking, Sutton Arts Theatre

relatively
This is where it all started for Sir Alan Ayckbourn, his first hit play. Originally entitled “Meet Your Father” it premiered in Scarborough in 1965, as was to become Ayckbourn’s custom, before becoming a hit in London’s West End in 1967.He is still writing, with over seventy plays to his credit. Early plays tend to be either rough diamonds, hints of things to come, or a treasure trove of ideas realised for the first time. “Relatively Speaking” falls into the latter category.

Drama in the late 1960’s and 1970’s often focussed on marital strife as marriages forged in the cultural changes of the swinging sixties were tested, or more established relationships reappraised. But Ayckbourn’s skill is to combine the darkness of Pinter, throwing in mistaken identity as Goldini and Goldsmith enjoyed, and adding a touch of Feydeau farce.

Two couples find their lives entwined, the young Ginny and Gregg, and older Phillip and Sheila. Ginny is having an affair with Phillip, which she wants to end, Gregg meets Phillip and Sheila thinking they are Ginny’s parents and Phillip meets Greg thinking that he is Sheila’s secret lover. Cue misunderstandings, hilarity and farce.

The scenes unfold during a summer weekend in the bed-sitting room of Ginny’s London flat and on the garden patio of Sheila and Philip’s home in the country in 1965. The scene change itself is quite ambitious with the patio exterior offering considerably more detail and depth than the flat, but the result is well worth it.

Ayckbourn is a master at conjuring comedy out of marital misery with Phillip excelling in misogynistic gloom, “She costs me 30 quid a week to run and that doesn’t include overheads.” Never does he miss an opportunity to snipe at Sheila either “I can’t say I’m very taken with this marmalade”

The highlight of the evening is a scene in which Philip and Sheila, talking entirely at cross-purposes about Ginny’s married lover, reveal the depths of their own antagonism, synthesising comedy and pathos. The laughter of misunderstanding, suddenly and subtly, colliding with the truth. Director Jane McConachie will be delighted that this set piece was so well despatched.

Anne Deakin steals the acting honours for the production, benefitting from a very well written part and wins many laughs at Sheila’s bewilderment with the arrival of Greg and Ginny. Lynne Ridge’s Philip is a curmudgeonly, wry, care worn soul who looks as though he will get off the hook – before a neat plot twist. Opposite the older couple, Joseph Flanagan offers naive, bemused innocence as Greg, Rachel Williams shimmies and strolls as Ginny.

There is very little visual comedy, all the comedy coming from the words, making this quite a demanding play for actors. The first scene of the first act took a while to warm up, but by the final scene all the cast was firing on all cylinders earning warm applause and much laughter from an almost full opening night audience, which augurs well for the rest of the run to 1st November
Gary Longden

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