Wednesday 9th May 2018 at Harrogate Theatre.
I’ll join the many folk before me and declare the obvious: Alan Ayckbourn is a master of farce. Oldham Coliseum’s production of Relatively Speaking does not disappoint in delivering all the fine details of Ayckbourn’s lively and playful work which inevitably provides wit, satire and an underlying critique of social and domestic structures. This is farce at its best; a script brimming with crossed wires and thrilling unspoken punchlines; an ode to puns, innuendo and running jokes; a glorification of the magic sparked by perfectly timed non-verbal responses. It’s also a piece that builds beautifully. Even when all seems revealed and we innocently await the revelation amongst the characters, more twists and turns are thrown in; even when we know what the next line will be, it’s still hilarious and often even more so for the anticipation. In short, Relatively Speaking is a superbly constructed comic marvel.It’s a pretty classic set up it would seem – Greg (Matt Connor) and Ginny (Lianne Harvey) are relatively new lovers and Greg wants to take the next step, but Ginny has secrets which make her reluctant… Ginny takes a trip to see her parents and Greg follows in an attempt to secure a ‘yes’, but his gallant gesture lands Ginny in hot water with the temperature nearing boiling point. Out in the countryside, the young lovers spend time with Ginny’s ‘parents’ Philip (Crispin Letts) and Sheila (Jo Mousley); lines are crossed, re-crossed and knitted into tight webs of misconceptions. Anticipation levels are kept gently simmering for the duration as characters Tango with truth, suspicion, incriminating details and the threat of exposure while others remain hilariously oblivious. At some point though, a nondescript set of slippers will prove just as explosively important as Greg initially predicts…Matt Connor’s Greg is a vision of well-meaning innocence. He’s a man in love and on edge looking to seal a bright future and he seems to yearn for an emulation of times past when it comes to stable and clear cut relationships. Connor’s depiction of Greg’s indestructible good nature and absolute ignorance are perfectly winning. Lianne Harvey’s Ginny is a wonderful counterpart to Greg and she is an aspirational vision of the emancipated future. Harvey excels when the matronly dismissal of Greg’s silliness gives way to comical terror as she flailingly attempts to put away the past to pave the way for the future. Crispin Letts is an absolute gem as the upright and self-serving Philip whose caveman possessiveness towards his wife is as set in stone as his arrogant sense of self. Letts’ performance is seasoned and his facial expressions can send an audience into free and hearty laughter in a split second. Jo Mousley perfectly embodies the bright and breezy can-do wife of the fifties and sixties. To the ear, Sheila is an amalgamation of Routledge’s Hyacinth and Keith’s Margo, with markedly ‘proper’ delivery to guarantee laughs as she aims to cater for all needs with a generosity and good will. Sheila is endearingly oblivious and it is Mousley’s portrayal of her indoctrinated Britishness which puts her in the line of punchline fire; her manners override her confusion and it’s all very thrilling to watch – as is the discovery that there’s much more to her than meets the eye.Relatively Speaking is admittedly a piece which feels dated in places and gets off to a somewhat slow and laboured start in Ginny’s apartment. My gut feeling it that the responsibility for this lies with the fact that it feels a little static and claustrophobic to have the couple pottering about in such a small space with neither giving very much until Ginny has to start explaining away suspicious occurrences. It soon picks up as we change location and it quickly begins to hurtle along gleefully. Michael Holt’s designs sling shot us into the sixties through both set and costume and he manages to capture both a tiny apartment in the décor of ‘the young and the unrestrained’ and a decidedly well kept, neat country home on a revolving set piece. The play premiered in 1965 and the gender politics on display feel like a time warp as ‘mother’ is chained to kitchen duties and ‘father’ hoes the garden, but Ginny and Greg present the impending shift; Ginny is more outgoing and forceful than Greg who delights in borrowing mother’s pinny as he digs in to help with lunch. Ayckbourn’s writing delights in exploiting both dynamics in the name of hilarity.This production of a truly wonderful play promises both silliness and sophistication aplenty in a world of endless misunderstandings. Robin Herford’s direction is sharp and insightful, doing justice to the carefully applied genius of Ayckbourn’s script, with pauses and exclamations in all the right places. Herford’s direction of the cast is as precise as his handling of the text, creating a piece of theatre that runs along on a smooth and limitless fuel untapped by the rest of us. Comedy is a notoriously unforgiving medium and both cast and director deliver all the elements with flair despite the presumably forbidding complexity of the seemingly ‘simple’ plot and all its accompanying near-chaos. If you love to laugh and value the beauty of everything that makes a fabulous farce a real hoot, book yourself a ticket!
Relatively Speaking plays at Harrogate Theatre until May 12th and tickets can be found here.