Words by Emma Clegg Playing at The Theatre Royal Bath until 21 January
Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn is aptly described as a play of misunderstandings and mistaken identities. The cast of four – a perfect number for making the most of both these – consists of two couples, where Greg (one half of the younger pair) is led to believe that Philip and Sheila are his girlfriend Ginny’s parents. The fact that they are not is the longstanding joke.
Naturally the misunderstandings are stretched to the limit, turned inside out, mistakenly clarified, cut up and patched together again, and shifted into different ones. Even at the end of the final scene, at least three of the cast seem not to have a clear perspective either on the exact relationships of the others or what explains their individual motivations – and the reappearance of a pair of slippers in the closing moments leaves even the audience guessing. The result – in this new production with Liza Goddard, Steven Pacey, Olivia Le Andersen and Antony Eden, directed by Robert Herford, which starts its tour in Bath – is as witty, uproarious and amusing today as it was 55 years ago. I’d say that’s quite an achievement.
The original 1967 West End hit – Ayckbourn’s first stage hit – included the magical duo of a young Richard Briers as Greg (just before Good Life Fame) and Michael Hordern as Philip. Early in its run, Noël Coward saw the show, and sent congratulations by telegram to Ayckbourn, praising the young writer on “a beautifully constructed and very funny comedy”. Believing the telegram to be a cruel joke, Ayckbourn discarded it. But a call from Richard Briers, who had talked to Coward after the performance, led him to retrieve the telegram, proving his overnight success. Herein is the material for another plot of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, but in fact Ayckbourn wasn’t short of ideas for plays – his running total is currently 89 – but Relatively Speaking, itself a perennial success, established him as a ‘playwriting phenomenon’.
The action takes place during a summer weekend in London and the country. We first meet Greg (Antony Eden) and Ginny (Olivia Le Andersen) in Ginny’s London flat. Greg, obsessed by the prospect of marriage to Ginny, is frustrated that he can’t accompany Ginny for lunch with her ‘parents’. He finds an address in the flat that she passes off as theirs. And that’s just before she leaves to break off her affair with an older married man. And he follows to join them for lunch. Misunderstanding well and truly sown. The scene change is a short but thrilling spectacle – the set swivels grandly by 180 degrees to reveal a suburban back garden with patio against the rear house elevation. (I loved the swivel so much that I rather wished we could go back to the flat before the end of the play.)
Liza Goddard as the bewildered Sheila – who is no stranger to Ayckbourn (or to this play) and describes him as “the best director in the entire universe” – is magnificent. Her character is the least informed about the other characters, and therefore her confusion, and overriding acceptance of being out of the loop (or rather loops), draws out much of the comedy. Steven Pacey as her husband Philip also has a traumatic emotional journey, and he stokes this up at every opportunity with every chance for comic hesitation, an astounded judder or a frustrated arm gesture harnessed. Antony Eden captures Greg’s sunny ability to keep his optimism intact whatever happens to the contrary, and Olivia Le Andersen confidently inhabits the rather weighty role of creating the situation and knowing the most, while pretending otherwise.
In Ayckbourn’s words, “Greg never knows what’s going on; Philip does for a few minutes when he discovers Ginny’s lie about her being his daughter but by the end of the play he’s as baffled as ever; Ginny starts the ball rolling with the initial lie but, as soon as she finds Greg at The Willows, rapidly loses her grip on the situation; the irony of the play is that, at the end, it is Sheila who, ignorant of everything up to that point, suddenly realises the whole situation.”
There’s something rather comforting about a play that has been performed to packed houses since its first writing, and especially one that can make even the hardened social media audience of today roll over with laughter. Each character has an elaborate and well-choreographed comic dance and all four provide a strong link to a play that seems in no danger of losing its lure.