Tag Archives: Relatively Speaking

The Ayckbourn Supremacy


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 1st November, 2016


Alan Ayckbourn’s hit comedy from 1967 still comes across as fresh and funny, mainly because the devices it uses (mistaken identities, misunderstandings) are timeless and as old as theatre itself.  At the time of its premiere, the play was actually rather progressive with its matter-of-fact depiction of a young unmarried couple and their evident sexual relationship.  Ginny and Greg have only been together for a month!  Gasp!  Of course, these days we take these things in our stride; Ayckbourn was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to the way social mores were going.

It soon becomes apparent that Ginny is more worldly-wise than Greg.  Details of previous lovers emerge and she is rather too vague about the flowers and chocolates that continue to arrive.  Greg’s suspicions (among other things) are aroused and he follows her to what he thinks is her parents’ house in deepest Buckinghamshire.  Somehow he arrives before she does and so a web of mistakes and misunderstandings ensues, entangling the characters but giving the audience delicious treat after treat.  Ayckbourn takes dramatic irony and stretches it almost beyond the bounds of plausibility but he is such a master of the form, he knows exactly how to stir and season the pot.

The cast of four is excellent, playing the finely-tuned comedy like a virtuoso quartet.  Antony Eden is Greg, well-meaning, decent but a bit dim Greg, the catalyst for the chaos.  Lindsey Campbell is his perky but secretive girlfriend, with Robert Powell and Ayckbourn veteran Liza Goddard as the older couple mistaken for her parents.  Eden is energetic and likable while Campbell balances attractiveness with shadiness – we begin to suspect she’s not quite good enough for him.  Powell’s comic timing is a joy as grumpy Philip is wound up like a clock spring while Goddard is the perfect foil for him as the sweetly oblivious Sheila who is not as dim as she might appear.

Robin Herford directs with a light touch.  The characters come across as credible people in an incredible situation and the laughs keep coming.  Big, hearty belly laughs – it is as though maestro Ayckbourn is playing us like fiddles and we love him for it.  He keeps us in on the joke throughout and we revel in our superior knowledge as the characters flail and flounder.  It all seems to stem from a terribly English inability to introduce ourselves properly.  We assume, we leap to conclusions, rather than breach convention, rather than risk appearing impolite and say who we are and what we mean.  And we’re all the more fun because of it!


Confusion reigns: Liza Goddard and Antony Eden


Having Relations

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.