Relatively Speaking – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Alan Ackbourn

Director: Robin Herford

In Alan Ayckbourn’s first dramatic success, Relatively Speaking, Ginny lives in an on-trend sixties bedsit in London where she has installed her new boyfriend, Greg. But her previous lover, her boss Philip, continues to shower her with flowers and phone calls. This being the pre-mobile age, she decides one Sunday to go down in person to his house in the country and break things off while his wife is at church. Greg, believing Ginny is visiting her parents, decides to follow and ask her father for her hand in marriage. Such is the typically absurb premise of farce.

Philip’s wife Sheila has not after all gone to church – it’s the third Sunday after Trinity. So it is she to whom the hapless Greg presents himself, having somehow arrived earlier than Ginny. Sheila is all good-natured charm. She has no idea who this rather inarticulate young man can be, but nonetheless invites him to lunch. Thus the scene is set for a series of fast-paced scenes of daft misunderstanding which are Ayckbourn’s trademark. Greg was originally played by Richard Briars in the first London production in 1967: the part that launched his career. A revival in 2013 starred Felicity Kendall as Sheila. It is not hard to hear echoes of their performances in this slick new production.

Here James Simmons plays Philip with a sort of charming menace that recalls Hugh Laurie in House. Much of the plot depends on Sheila’s willingness to keep the show on the road, presenting sherry and Sunday lunch with a permanent smile to these complete strangers whom she is far too polite to interrogate. Lianne Harvey is an appealing Ginny, content to skate cheerfully over the surface until her plans threaten to implode. Christopher Bonwell makes a convincing Greg, a decent if permanently awkward young man.

The comic misunderstandings ramp up. Philip gets the impression that the young man is boldly asking to marry his wife. He must be the mystery lover, he thinks, that he had half believed in. At this stage the sexual politics of a bygone age make the laughter uncomfortable, Philip angrily telling Greg that his wife is costly “to run” – he reckons thirty quid a week at least. Sheila is “highly strung,” he tells him – his excuse for her occasional outbursts of anger. Later when Philip gleefully takes on the role of Ginny’s father, his vengeful revelations to Greg about Ginny as an unattractive child are nastily malicious. All works out in the end with Ginny and Greg set to recreate another empty middle-class marriage.

Undoubtedly Ayckbourn presents mid-century suburban life as stultifying, but can farce ever really interrogate itself? Michael Frayn’s Noises Off famously deconstructed the genre: it’s hard to see now quite the point of traditional farce.

Runs until 9 October 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

Slick suburban farce

The Reviews Hub - London

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One Comment

  1. Surely the point of farce is to make an audience laugh? And this show easily achieved that for me – particularly once the action moved to the suburban garden of the older couple. Ayckbourn handles all the comic misunderstandings masterfully and it’s just a glorious experience to hear such delightfully constructed comedy. After the hellish eighteen months we’ve all had, can’t we just experience a thoroughly entertaining night-out without agonising over ‘deconstructing’ and ‘interrogating’ the form?

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