Thursday, 23 May 2013

Theatre review: Relatively Speaking

For an Officially Accredited National TreasureTM, there's something very divisive about Alan Ayckbourn. Most of the other theatre bloggers I know seem to hate his work with a fiery vengeance but the newspaper reviewers and much of the public can't get enough - hence the West End revivals that keep coming at a rate of one or two a year. I've never had that strong a response to him either way but since my friend Vanessa is firmly in the "love" camp these revivals are must-sees for us. Lindsay Posner's production of Relatively Speaking toured last year but has now settled into a London run at Wyndham's with the same cast of Felicity Kendal, Jonathan Coy, Max Bennett and Kara Tointon. Kept in the 1960s when the play was written, the production's opening almost suggests a parody of the period's kitchen sink dramas, but soon opens out into something much cosier.

In Ginny's (Tointon) tatty London flat, her boyfriend (of one month) Greg is thinking of proposing. But the couple's farcical morning preparations, a naked Greg (Bennett) wandering around the flat protecting his modesty with bunches of flowers that keep turning up (although contrary to what I'd heard Bennett doesn't quite go for the full frontal alert) alternate with his angry accusations of her sleeping with other, older men.

This doesn't seem to put him off his marriage plans though, and when Ginny tells him she's going to visit her parents in the country, he steals the address and goes ahead of her, planning to ask her father for his blessing. But Philip (Coy) is not Ginny's father, in fact her reasons for visiting him are far from family-friendly. As Peter McKintosh's set goes from dingy London flat to country garden on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we end up in a much more familiar Ayckbourn setting among the sexual misadventures of the middle classes. Everyone's insistence on referring to "he" and "she" without mentioning anyone's name means means Philip soon thinks Greg is his wife Sheila's (Kendal) toy boy, and asking his permission to run away with her. By the time Ginny arrives everyone's got a different mistaken impression of what's going on. At its best, the show scales the dizzy comic heights of "almost raising a smile."

Because for me this was a glimpse of what the Ayckbourn-haters see: There's gentle comedy and then there's comedy that's barely there at all, despite its sex-comedy setup it's as cosy as the slippers that form a major plot point, with lines that need considerable effort from the cast for it to even register that they're punchlines, and a plot that requires both male characters to behave schizophrenically before it can even get off the ground. Tointon's main good quality as an actor is "well at least it's not her sister" but the other three are strong comic performers, and Bennett and Kendal's performances, especially some of the latter's reactions, provide the few moments I actually found funny. Even Vanessa, who remains an Ayckbourn fan, only called it "good enough" and wondered what made the people around us so helpless with laughter. Some people are clearly warming to Relatively Speaking; it left me relatively cold.

Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 31st of August at Wyndham's Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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