Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Alan Ayckbourn
It’s good to find that the new normal includes an element that graced the old normal for decades: the annual Alan Ayckbourn premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. And, with 80-odd plays behind him, he remains as mischievous as ever. Who else would place Act 1 on August 5 2020/1942 and Act 2 on the following afternoon? Is that August 6, 2020, or August 6, 1942? Well, both, of course.
Unfortunately The Girl Next Door doesn’t always spring its surprises (of which there are many) in the most dramatic manner. Quite simply, the garden and kitchen next door to Rob’s house have temporarily swung back to 1942. Kevin Jenkins’ superb set – two kitchens, two gardens – tells us as much and the dialogue between Rob and “the girl next door”, Lily, soon makes it totally obvious. A similarly unsurprising event occurs when Lily’s husband, Alf, returning on leave from the North African Desert, finds Lily and Rob in a clinch for a dramatic Act 1 curtain. The preceding dialogue implies that Alf has been killed, but the presence of his name in the programme suggests Ayckbourn is not really interested in surprise value here.
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays always contain an almost indecent number of ideas and variations for a mere two hours. In the best of his plays they miraculously take flight and interconnect by a logic known only to the Scarborough Master. In others they trip over themselves as the play struggles to decide what sort of play it is. In The Girl Next Door you can see the joins. However, it remains witty, entertaining and humane – after all, it’s Ayckbourn! Finally, it decides to be a love story (though not the one we expect) on the strength of a short last scene beautifully played by Bill Champion.
If the play explores all sorts of byways, its basic plot is simplicity itself – and, for a play with a historical focus, remarkably topical. Rob Hathaway is desperately frustrated with life: 60 years old, two failed marriages and his successful womanising behind him, a seldom-in-work actor after his heroic role as George “Tiger” Jennings was written out of a World War II fire service drama on television– and, to make it worse, lockdown has forced his business-like sister, Alex, to isolate with him.
Then he sees an attractive young woman in the garden next door and his eyes light up. The rest of the play follows his developing relationship with Lily alongside speculation about Alf’s fate. The two periods are neatly contrasted, both comically (Lily aghast at Rob’s labour-saving kitchen – “What do you find to do all day?”) and seriously (tragedies cheerfully borne compared to the deprivations of lockdown). The attitudes to foreigners and, especially, the role of women are explored subtly and sensitively alongside such jolly japes as having to pretend to Alf that Beck’s Beer comes from Bexhill-on-Sea. Sometimes Ayckbourn slides off themes too rapidly: Lily and Alf are taken aback that Alex is married to another woman, but never think to say that it’s impossible and the vexed point of time-travellers changing events is aired, but not explored. However, Ayckbourn’s ear for the cadences and phrasing of 1940s dialogue is impeccable.
As Lily, Naomi Petersen is outstanding, her cheerful chirruping in the face of the disintegration of her family a perfect re-creation of a 1940s ideal, before her performance gains a never overstated emotional depth. Bill Champion as Rob, likeable but not admirable, is convincingly weak and selfish and his final self-revelation is extremely moving. Alexandra Mathie (Alex) and Linford Johnson (Alf) don’t have the same opportunities to develop their characters, but make the most of bossy bursts of temper and agonising fears of death, respectively.
It should be mentioned that the Stephen Joseph Theatre has double-cast the play as an insurance against a Covid diagnosis and some performances will feature the alternative cast – no doubt also excellent.
Runs until July 3rd 2021