Relatively Speaking is the first of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedies and many theatregoers consider it his wittiest and best.
Playing to a packed audience at the Key Theatre last week, this Super-Drama production unfolded with the complexity of a P. G. Wodehouse novel crossed with a Mozart opera buffa.
But, whereas in other comedies things are eventually sorted out, the genius of Ayckbourn’s play is that any real sense of certainty is soon lost and never recovered. As the bewildered Philip so pertinently says: “I think there might have been a certain amount of misunderstanding.”
Played in an understated way by Andy Sanders he later observes: “I think we ought to straighten one or two things out.”
But, the whole point of the play is to see how far things go when nothing is ever straightened out.
One of the many misunderstandings arises when James Rowe, as the well meaning but bungling Greg, gets the erroneous idea that his girlfriend’s parents aren’t married. Consequently, the unfortunate Ginny, nicely played by Katie Toone, is made to keep declaiming ‘I’m illegitimate! I’m illegitimate!’ Presumably to free herself from any sense of guilt.
The only problem being that she isn’t illegitimate at all, that Philip is her ex-lover and not her father, and that Sheila, Philip’s wife, isn’t her mother.
Meanwhile Philip is convinced that Sheila herself has had a series of affairs, her latest lover being Greg, which isn’t true either.
And so the endless confusion continues.
In the end it’s Sheila, in a lifelike and sympathetic performance by Tracey Brittle, who is the first to get a glimmering of what may have been going on.
Her understanding is rewarded and she’s able to manipulate things so that Philip ends up paying for Ginny’s and Greg’s honeymoon.
But in a play that explores the lies, deceit, suspicions, and jealousies that often accompany extra-marital affairs it seems unlikely that any true understanding or resolution will ever be reached.
The mysterious pair of slippers found under Ginny’s bed early on in the play turn up again at the end in the manner of an Alfred Hitchcock MacGuffin.
They don’t belong to Greg or to Philip. So whose are they?
It’s to the credit of the hard-working quartet of actors that these issues came alive in this sparkling and pacey production directed by John Moxon.
Colourful sets and props suggested the ambience of the mid-sixties when the play is set. But to judge from this performance it seems human nature hasn’t changed much during the last 50 years.
Review: Joe Conway