Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 28th August, 2012
This revival of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s early plays shows that even in his late 20s, the playwright was a master of comic form. He was later to become more experimental with structure but this neat four-hander shows how a simple set-up of misunderstanding can be spun out of control to a dizzying and hilarious effect.
It begins in the London flat of Ginny (Kara Tointon). It is in this opening scene that we are most reminded that this, contemporary in its day, has now become a period piece. Audrey Hepburn and The Beatles posters break up the garish pattern on the wallpaper. Water damage stains the ceiling. There is that curious mix of vibrancy and dinginess you see so often in the 1960s. This is important only for a couple of details that time and society have left behind. Once the action transfers to the Buckinghamshire garden of Philip and Sheila, the play stands up almost as if it had been written yesterday.
As Ginny’s boyfriend Greg, Max Bennett begins the play in the nude. Wrapped in a bedsheet he amuses himself with Sabu impressions and seems well on the way to becoming a standard Ayckbourn prat. He’s not as amusing as he thinks he is – which is what makes him amusing to us. But the genius of the writing doesn’t stop there: When the sheet comes off and it begins to emerge from the dialogue that Ginny is not being fully truthful, it is amazing how quickly we become endeared to this prat. He is a vulnerable and well-meaning sort (and pretty buff too!).
The real Ayckbourn monster of the piece is Philip (Jonathan Coy) whose double standards quickly expose him. He and his wife (Felicity Kendal) suspect each other of having affairs. She teases him with letters she has mysteriously received on Sundays, in a bid to make him jealous and win back his attention. He is better at covering his tracks.
Greg shows up out of the blue, believing he is calling in on Ginny’s parents to ask them for her hand in marriage. From here on in, the comedy is cranked up notch by notch as layer upon layer of misunderstanding and confusion is piled on. Add Ginny’s arrival and the revelation that she is there to end it with her older lover Philip and the entire second act is a dazzling display of invention and farcicial situations. As nuggets of information become clear, and pennies begin to drop, a power play starts, as characters strive to preserve the misconceptions in order to manipulate the situation to their own ends. It is staggeringly entertaining, not just in the writing but the comic playing and timing of this gang of four is perfect. Felicity Kendal is spot on as the dizzy wife who at last turns the table on her adulterous husband. Jonathan Coy does a nice line in apoplexy and convivial sarcasm as the monstrous Philip. Max Bennett makes for an amiable prat and Kara Tointon keeps her cool as wily Ginny, trying to keep a handle on the situation. Lindsay Posner’s direction keeps the action ticking along, allowing each character their moments of light and shade.
It is a treat of a night out. A glimpse at how sexual mores may have altered and a reminder how the timeless ingredients of comedy: misunderstandings and mistaken identities can work like a charm in the hands of a master.