Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Lindsay Posner
Reviewer: Lettie Mckie
When performed in 1967 Relatively Speaking was Alan Ayckbourn’s first big success, establishing him as one of the leading playwrights of his generation. His signature ability to construct complex narratives steeped in subtext and driven by miscommunication between his protagonists was established in Relatively Speaking for the first time. Its debut was also the first time when (as mentioned in the programme) ‘the sex lives of an unmarried couple were openly depicted on the West End stage’.
In a theatrical world which is used to lauding Ayckbourn as a celebrated part of the establishment it is a stretch to imagine the fresh reactions of his first audiences. Similarly a sense of the originally controversial nature of this play is hard to appreciate when, in 2013, sexual openness is taken so much for granted. As a result, although current production starring Felicity Kendal and Kara Tointon is extremely entertaining, it is a little bit like looking at impressionist painting with jaded 21st century eyes used to the Turner Prize, it is almost impossible to capture the original bite the work would have had when its creator wasn’t famous all over the world.
However, that said, there is something very comforting about the familiar, and watching this play is like sinking back into a cosy duvet, snuggling down into a blissful two hours of pithy dialogue and carefully constructed farce. A consummately professional show with high production values, and a set which effortlessly captures the essence of that era (Peter McKintosh) Lindsay Posner’s take on this Ayckbourn classic is in many ways a delight to watch.
Tointon plays the stunning Ginny who is currently sleeping with Greg (Max Bennett) but has had several lovers before including an unknown older gentleman. The opening scene takes place in Greg’s tiny bedsit where the couple argue, make up, argue again, before Greg casually asks Ginny to marry him. Before he has time to get a reply she runs off to the country ostensibly to visit her parents but not before she takes a phone call from a mysterious man which Greg overhears and Ginny pretends never happened. Picking up the address she has left on the bedside table he decides to follow her and ask her father for her hand in marriage.
What follow is a classic Ayckbourn story of mistaken identity around the dinner table set in the beautiful country home of Sheila (Felicity Kendal) and Philip (Jonathan Coy). After a faltering start where she is less natural than she should be Tointon warms up in the second act but Felicity Kendal completely steals the show as Sheila. A master of her own particular brand of staged naturalism the difference between her and Tointon is that she is completely believable as the shunned older woman, the typically glamorous 1950s house wife. Without Kendal this production would not have been half so compelling, or as funny but her performance is also predictable. Kendal is a veteran actor of exceptional talent, Ayckbourn (and Coward for that matter) is what she does, and she does it very well, but in this production she does not offer anything we have not seen before.
Relatively Speaking boasts all the elements that go into making world class theatre, a play by Britain’s best loved living playwright, an incredibly well imagined and effortlessly detailed set, and a member of acting royalty in a key rôle supported by an energetic, highly talented cast. However there is a spark of originality missing that makes the whole experience slightly disappointing. For those who have never seen Ayckbourn or Kendal this production will be an absolute delight but for those who have it only confirms the inherent pleasures these two offer, it does not present anything fresh for more seasoned audiences to enjoy.