REVIEW Relatively Speaking

11
September
2019

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Relatively

 



REVIEW Relatively Speaking

Helena Gomm reports from Salisbury Playhouse

Images: Helen Murray

Director Stephen Joseph, who in 1964 asked the young Alan Ayckbourn to write something to entertain holidaymakers in Scarborough when they returned from a day on the beach, must have sighed with relief when he saw the manuscript of Relatively Speaking (then called Meet My Father).

The UK theatre had been rocked ten years earlier by the radical ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of Arnold Wesker and John Osborne, in which the thorny issues of class hatred and racial and sexual discrimination exposed the vitriol that lay at the heart of a society that was both embracing and resisting change.

Ayckbourn’s play, with its solidly middle-class characters and setting, harks back to a more comfortable genre of theatre, where marital peccadilloes do not result in anybody being seriously hurt and where, even if everything doesn’t work out completely at the end and the bickering isn’t entirely over, nobody is actually thrown out on the street to starve.

That is not to say that Relatively Speaking is totally lacking in realism. Set in the 1960s, it portrays the permissive society in full and without fuss. It is clear from the beginning, as Greg emerges naked from a rumpled single bed, that he has spent the night with his girlfriend Ginny and that they have an active sex life.

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It is also clear that he is not her first lover. Best of all, this is no big deal: Ayckbourn resists any temptation to make the fact that Greg and Ginny are unmarried the point of the play. There is a calm acceptance of the status quo, embraced equally by the middle-aged couple, Sheila and Philip, whom Greg and Ginny visit in the country, Greg believing he is visiting Ginny’s parents and Ginny trying to end her affair with Philip, her former boss, and persuade him to stop pestering her with gifts and phone calls.

Although this is one of Ayckbourn’s early works, it has many of the hallmarks of his later writing – complicated personal relationships, a plot that hinges on misunderstandings on a grand scale, a humorous if somewhat jaded view of the sustainability of a long-term marriage, even a set that requires several locations to be shown at once.

Nevertheless, it still retains its own freshness. Ayckbourn’s portrayal of relationships between men and women became rather more jaundiced later on, and we only see two settings here: Ginny’s bedsit (complete with kitchen sink) which, in James Button’s clever design, is seemingly miraculously transformed into the other half of Sheila and Philip’s garden (the first half being visible from the outset).

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The garden even has a pond and fountain, which the exasperated Philip ends up sticking his head in as the complex web of misunderstandings and mistaken identities unfolds.

The set cleverly evokes the 60s with its bold orange cushions and swirl of orange, brown and yellow delineating the outline of the bedsit. There is even a pair of Hornsea Pottery mugs for Greg and Ginny to sip their morning tea, and even if the plastic flowers that adorn Sheila and Philip’s garden are a bit too fake and gaudy, the effect is undeniable.

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For this production, Salisbury Playhouse has been restructured to allow for theatre in the round, in keeping with Stephen Joseph’s enthusiasm for this style of production, but with the action perhaps not divided in atotally equitable fashion between the different banks of audience.

I couldn’t help feeling that those on the other side from me were getting a better deal but they may have been thinking exactly the same. The stage area is also very wide, making it hard to see what is going on at the edges. Seeing everything matters, mainly because of the quality of the acting. Tim McMullan, in particular, has a very expressive face and can convey an enormous amount with just a lift of an eyebrow.

The casting is perfect with Caroline Harker beautifully portraying the wistful Sheila, seemingly the only one not having an affair, but pretending to be doing so in order to rekindle her husband’s interest.

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Hubert Burton and Louise Calf are splendid and totally believable as the young lovers. All four have perfect comic timing. I particularly like Greg’s outrage when Sheila will not acknowledge Ginny as her daughter, something far more shocking to him than any unconventional relationships that might or might not be taking place.

This may not be the gritty realism of kitchen sink drama, but it is the reality of a generation becoming more concerned with treating people right, not fussing over what they are doing behind closed doors.

Relatively Speaking is on at Salisbury Playhouse until September 28th and is well worth seeing.