At 82, Sir Alan Ayckbourn is firmly established as a grand old man of British theatre. He has, touch wood, seemingly avoided the self-destructive controversies that have befallen some of his contemporaries. (I mean just stop talking, David Hare!) Resolutely ‘uncancelled’ Ayckbourn, fortunately, remains a writer we are still allowed to like. Given this status, it is easy to forget there was a time he was an unknown. Back in the mid-1960s, Relatively Speaking was his first monster hit – earning 300 West End performances and a congratulatory telegram from Noël Coward, no less. There’s a risk to looking back, of course. Would it have aged well?
This is the question hanging in the air as we take our seats in the small but beautifully formed Jermyn Street Theatre auditorium. Talking of size, it seems unfair to blame a venue for being a bit tight but while the show’s chintzy sets are exactly what you’d picture for a farce, they feel distractingly cramped here, clipping the actors’ wings somewhat. No matter, the writing is the big draw here. Ayckbourn’s quick-witted catalogue of misunderstandings and crossed purposes is deceptive. He is so easy on the ear; it is easy to miss quite how brilliant his dialogue is. If he was a New Yorker, Aykbourn would be lauded for his genius. Here, we rather take him for granted as a parochial Home Counties writer. It is a regrettable English attitude born, I fear, of snobbery. Still, it is a shame to dwell on the vagaries of criticism when Relatively Speaking’s text is such a joy. Farcical confusion and wonderful plotting spin and spin. It’s dizzying right from the moment we first see nice but dim Greg wake in his girlfriend Ginny’s swinging London flat. It’s playwriting as acrobatics. A delightful triple somersault there, an effortless backflip here and more than one bravado swan dive that makes you catch your breath. It’s heady stuff if you are a writing fan. It’s a masterclass if you do any yourself.
This revival, which began life out of town at The Mill at Sonning, is stoically period including the aforementioned sets. A painted drape arrives that will feel charmingly nostalgic or, frankly, a bit tired depending on your point of view. Costumes, especially Miss Harvey’s in a bright Carnaby Street yellow, also leave us in no doubt where we are. As slightly dippy, but adorable Greg, Christopher Bonwell also harks back to the play’s original era. He brilliantly channels the good egg bonhomie of stars of the day such as Jim Dale, Roy Castle and Richard Briers. As Ginny, Lianne Harvey does a grand job personifying the liberated swinging 60s too. She mercifully avoids ‘Dolly Bird’ tropes and brings a solid groundedness to her characterisation alongside all the humour. We care about this young couple’s romance because, despite the ridiculous events surrounding them, it feels genuine. As the other couple in this strong quartet of actors, James Simmons and Rachel Fielding hit every delightful comic beat they are asked to. Their portrayal of a middle-aged couple bumbling along through their long marriage gains some of the evening’s biggest, and most knowing, laughs.
It is hard to argue that direction from Robert Herford, a long-time collaborator of Ayckbourn and former artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, brings much new to the party. Why should he? His choices are solid, but pacey and laugh-friendly. This all means fans of theatre, and playwriting especially, should get themselves a ticket. In a world where we are re-evaluating so much of what has gone before, revisiting truly great work like Relatively Speaking makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile night out.
Written by: Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by: Robert Herford
Set Design by: Michael Holt
Costumes by: Natalie Titchener
Relatively Speaking plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 9 October. Further information and booking via the below link.