FringeReview UK 2016
Directed by Robin Herford for Theatre Royal Bath productions this 1965 breakthrough four-hander that brought Alan Ayckbourn to fame, stars Liza Goddard and Robert Powell with design by Peter McKintosh – who replicates his elegant sets for the 2013 Lindsey Posner-directed revival at Wyndham’s. Mike Walker’s sound spikes Grainger’s Country Gardens.
- Liza Goddard and Robert Powell lead the 1965 breakthrough four-hander that brought Alan Ayckbourn to fame, directed in this Theatre Royal Bath production by Robin Herford and designed by Peter McKintosh – who replicates his elegant sets for the 2013 Lindsey Posner-directed revival at Wyndham’s. A sketchy bedsit gives way to an imposingly solid home and garden. It’s underlined here: Mike Walker’s sound spikes Grainger’s Country Gardens.
Four characters and four acts too, the first town the last three in the country and an overheard address: there’s more than a nod to The Importance of Being Ernest. It ends in revelations.
This is one of the quietest revolutions in postwar British theatre. To have a man tumble naked (if sheet-clad) out of his girlfriend’s bed in 1965 in a West End theatre is saying something, but the flush-fitting comic craft never lets you dwell on this, or that the girlfriend Ginny’s on at least her sixth partner in 1965, whereas Greg’s recently lost his virginity to her – and she made the running.
Ginny’s frantically trying to lose her previous partner, a man thirty years her senior, who incessantly calls sending flowers and chocolates, all of which tumble out of cupboards or baths: ‘petals on the kettle’ complains Greg suspecting something. He suspects even more with the caller; overhearing Ginny answering then lying he pursues her on her supposed trip to her parents – people he feels he has every right to meet. Those were the days. Antony Eden, both coltish and determined, edges himself with just a tinge of haplessness – he’s the one who never scents out everything – but with wit and petulance enough to show he’s worthy of sexy, worldly Ginny.
This sets up the beautifully dovetailed misunderstandings Noel Coward congratulated the young Ayckbourn on. Liza Goddard’s Sheila’s too polite to ask Eden’s Greg quite who he is, why he’s come, thus he assumes lunch is a foregone invitation. This collective refusal to overcome embarrassment and ask point-blank is Ayckbourn’s first great mechanism, one unthinkable now but a perfect subversion of the fading froideurs of the time.
Greg assumes Sheila is Ginny’s mother, and only at the end does she realize and by then is prepared to humour him. The brilliance of this lies in Ayckbourn’s edging the apparently placid prosperous couple with chasms of their own. Is Sheila having an affair? Guilty Philip thinks so. So when he’s confronted separately by Greg asking for ‘her’ hand in marriage he assumes he’s a forward lover asking to make off with his wife. Then Ginny arrives.
Exits and entrances are essential for the bright ball of confusion to stay airborne. The parings-off, variety of mind-sets and complicities proliferate like a miniature box of Ayckbourn mint thins: plot-points where you can see the master in embryo. Even the affable Greg explodes at Sheila thinking she’s denied her daughter because she’s illegitimate – this after Ginny can’t get her words out. What does tumble forth finally alerts Sheila at least who can engineer an outcome. But there are revelations still to spill, and who would believe slippers could feature so prominently?
Goddard possesses an innate sense of how this should go: straight, elegant sang-froid touched with just the right amount of welcome shadowed with a quick swervy sense of where to pounce once she’s apprehended everything. And no-one’s apprehended anything of her – even Ayckbourn has left her backstory a tantalising tabula rasa.
Some have seen in Sheila a prototype Woman in Mind indulging in sexual fantasy and nearing a breakdown as profound as her marriage. Goddard plays it straighter than that, more in keeping with the role Celia Johnson created, though Ayckbourn’s embryo development of such characters can never be ruled out because 1965 wasn’t ready for them.
Powell inhabits the higher guilty bluster, edged with a predatory lothario’s instincts gone to seed, and a degree of the ruthlessness, without the canniness to react creatively – or with grace – to being found out.
Lindsey Campbell exudes a Ginny who’s recently thrown off gawkiness but hasn’t quite found herself as a woman. She’s meant to be young, hardly more than twenty, and that’s why her prolific experience for 1965 is so shocking. Sheila’s kind summary of her suggests a Ginny more sexually at ease with herself than here – something unprecedented at the time. Eden’s Greg though – if like most in this part never exuding the down-at-heel jobs Greg has – pitches it just right: a naturally bright if slightly buffoonish, jealous and more than slightly resourceful lover who’s fathomed neither Ginny nor the residual chemistry between her and Philip.
There’s not a creak in this production, no joinery or groaning carpentry, even when Philip shunts off into the undergrowth for faintly flimsy reasons. Herford knows what he’s about: pace, panache, and more than a dose of Ayckbourn’s generosity of spirit, which glows here as telling the world how it was going to be.