Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Robin Herford
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
During the seventies, barely a season in Britain’s regional theatres went by without the latest offering from Alan Ayckbourn. Ayckbourn’s plays offered an ideal balance of light comedy with just a touch of shock value, reflecting the profound moral changes of the age, and always eliciting plenty of scandalized laughter from a traditional theatre crowd. It was the kind of play you went out to see on a Saturday night, dressed up and clutching a box of chocolates.
Revisiting one of Ayckbourn’s earliest plays is, then, an interesting experiment. Whereas Sheridan or Shakespeare offer a thought-provoking mix of contemporary relevance crossed with historical distance, Relatively Speaking is a throwback to a world not thats different from our own, but with slightly more uncomfortable morals. Director Robin Herford has solidly retained the play’s mid-sixties setting. The conservative attitudes relating to sex outside marriage sit oddly alongside the suggestion that “running around the office in a short skirt” is “asking for it”. You could read this as having come a long way in a short time, you could also read it as a reminder that we haven’t come far enough.
Relatively Speaking is classic Ayckbourn territory. You could imagine any number of his plays on Peter McKintosh’s vast, yet unexciting set. Philip (Robert Powell) and Sheila (Sarah Simpkins understudying Liza Goddard on the opening night at the Lowry) are solidly middle-class middle England, where bad behaviour is rife but unspoken. When Philip’s much younger lover Ginny (Lindsey Campbell) and her boyfriend Greg (Antony Eden) turn up one Sunday morning (it would take too long to go into the reasons for their unexpected visit) all the secrets are going to come to the surface over a very uncomfortable Sunday lunch.
The production ambles along, but it’s a thin plot, lacking Ayckbourn’s later dramatic complexities and comic narrative. What keeps it going is Robert Powell’s hugely watchable performance, as he ekes out the humour with his endearing delivery, wholly inhabiting his conflicted character. Antony Eden as the youthful Greg plays particularly well against him, portraying a charming innocence amid all the discomfort and lies.
It’s interesting that this production of Relatively Speaking draws an aging crowd, who surely have seen this play in the past and seem appreciative this time around. A younger audience might find it bafflingly dated and yet at times morally uncomfortable. A fifty-year-old play is becoming something of a period piece, and yet the time doesn’t yet feel right to appreciate it as anything other than rather dull and irrelevant to a modern audience.
Runs until 22 October 2016 | Image: Contributed