FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Robin Herford for The Mill at Sonning Theatre this 1965 breakthrough four-hander that brought Alan Ayckbourn to fame, features design by Michael Holt, Costume Design Natalie Titchener, with Original Lighting Designer Matthew Biss. State Manager’s Catherine Mizrahi, ASM Morgan Toole. Mike Walker’s original sound still spikes Grainger’s Country Gardens. Till October 9th.
I was beginning to think Alan Ayckbourn’s 1965 breakthrough four-hander Relatively Speaking is his most popular play. Well it is. The amount of fizzing misunderstandings between just four people certainly make it a July perennial amongst his evergreens.
Then I realised this revival at Jermyn Street is again directed by Ayckbourn stalwart Robin Herford, whose Theatre Royal Bath production starred Felicity Kendall and Jonathan Coy in its 2013 incarnation at Wyndham’s, then revived for a 2016 tour with Liza Goddard Robert Powell, Antony Eden and Lindsey Campbell. Even if Herford’s responsible for all recent UK versions (I say nothing of abroad, but the programme does!), it proves how we never tire of it.
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 Earnest. It ends in revelations.
This time the production must fit JST’s space – designed here by Michael Holt, A richly-founded bedsit with a wall of funky 60s icons, plastic divider curtains to an offstage kitchen and every crammed space festooned with flowers. Then for the rest of the play a neat drop-screen with a rear view of the house unrolls with garden furniture – pure home and garden. It’s underlined here: Mike Walker’s original sound riffs mid-sixties hits and still spikes Grainger’s Country Gardens. Costume designer Natalie Titchener makes Ginny’s orange suit with burnt umber stockings the standout, with original lighting designer Matthew Biss filtering a strong July London dawn in contrast with the effect of a cloudless July in Berkshire.
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 (especially with sumo imitations), but the flush-fitting comic craft never lets you dwell on this, or that girlfriend Ginny’s on perhaps her sixth partner in 1965, whereas Greg’s recently lost his virginity to her – and she made the running he claims.
‘You’re a wonderful lover’ Ginny tells him confidently, perhaps to boost his confidence. Later Ginny realises she’s Greg’s first and her anxiety for his sake should he want to commit is wholly genuine. My seventies childhood recalls an If You Think You’ve Got Problems Radio 4 programme devoted to just this male obsession with a more experienced wife. Ayckbourn nails this scene as the only one to answer Sheila’s judgement at the end. Blink and you miss why. Ginny’s tentative freedom and warmth isn’t the issue. In this play, as so often, it’s the men.
Lianne Harvey hems that liberation with a palpable anxiety, fright it might backfire, vulnerability preparing the way for a genuine outburst later. I’ve seen more slightly more urbanity but I prefer this, a relative constant in Herford’s revivals. Harvey’s Ginny is convincingly unsure of herself, still awed socially, pushing into a new age by instinct.
Ginny’s frantically trying to lose her previous partner, a man thirty years her senior, who incessantly calls sending those 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.
Harvey does switchback fury well too with both her men, constrained by what happens next. Ginny’s exchanges with Philip are the only ones where complete understanding reigns, and it’s a seething struggle.
Christopher Bonwell, 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. For now. His problem – or future downfall – is a more traditional mindset. Like marriage.
This sets up the beautifully dovetailed misunderstandings Noel Coward congratulated the young Ayckbourn on. Rachel Fielding’s Sheila is too polite to ask Bonwell’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. This quartet fine-tune it to the diminutive theatre too, and the scale of laughter answers them.
Greg assumes Sheila is Ginny’s mother. Only at the end does she realize – by then she’s 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 seems to think so though both are play-acting, a bit like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which might have provided a hint.
So when Philip’s confronted separately by Greg asking for ‘her’ hand in marriage he assumes Greg’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?
Fielding possesses an innate sense of how this should go: straight, elegant sang-froid touched with both guarded warmth and just the right amount of welcome; shadowed with a swervy sense of where to pounce once she’s apprehended it. And no-one’s apprehended anything of her – even Ayckbourn leaves Sheila’s backstory a tantalising tabula rasa.
Some see in Sheila a prototype Woman in Mind indulging in sexual fantasy, nearing a breakdown as profound as her marriage. Fielding plays it straighter, more in keeping with the role Celia Johnson created and for instance Goddard continued, though Ayckbourn’s embryo development of such characters can never be ruled out because 1965 wasn’t ready for them.
James Simmons inhabits the higher guilty bluster, edged with a predatory lothario’s instincts gone to seed, with a shaft of ruthlessness. Simmons exposes a Philip without the canniness to react creatively – or with grace – to being found out. Simmons takes his trigger-behaviour a notch higher than normal, and it works.
Philip’s almost blatant attack on Ginny where Ginny can’t defend herself is both horribly hypocritical and revelatory for both women in different ways. And his doigt de signeur gesture with its resolution is breathtaking farce shrouding something much darker.
Simmons’ Philip suggests how he won Harvey’s Ginny: one who’s recently thrown off gawkiness but hasn’t quite found herself as a woman. Sheila’s kind summary of her suggests a Ginny more sexually at ease with herself than here. Ginny’s meant to be young, hardly more than twenty; her experience for 1965 shocks and thrills both men in differently sexist ways. So predatory Philip thinks he owns Ginny.
Bonwell’s Greg – 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, more than slightly resourceful lover who’s fathomed neither Ginny nor the residual chemistry between her and Philip. There’s still lines you can imagine the role’s originator Richard Briers speaking. Bonwell brings to Greg a particular look of utter bafflement and outrage as everyone else denies themselves to him, as he sees it.
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, or behind a door of crashing garden tools when he hears Ginny for the first time. 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. Bright orange, probably.