Relatively Speaking (Richmond Theatre)

Relatively Speaking (Richmond Theatre, until October 8th)

Mistaken identity and layers of misunderstandings with a dark hue still raise laughs in a robust revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s first major hit, Relatively Speaking, on a welcome provincial tour.

These early Ayckbourn plays (this is from 1967) are undergoing quite a renaissance as producers realise their potential popularity, with strong casts, and their timeless comic value.

This latest production is an unbridled joy, helped significantly by the direction of Robin Herford, who has had considerable experience of Ayckbourn and has appeared in more original productions of the writer’s plays than any other actor.

Such knowledge helps this outstanding production to hit every single moment of comedy, each dark nook and cranny of the text, and each twist and turn of the sometimes farcical but always hilarious plot.

But of course he has plenty to work with: Ayckbourn’s play may be set in 1965 but it has plenty of contemporary   themes so never once seems dated and there is a splendid cast of four who don’t put a foot wrong in this finely constructed and perfectly-choreographed game of secrets, revelations, crossed wires and threats to comfortable domestic life.

Robert Powell proves to be an expert in comic timing and delivery as Philip, suffering the frustration of a strained marriage and the joys of a relationship with a younger woman. He brings warmth to the gruff character, with the flicker of a smile as he realises the chaos unleashed around him and a mild panic as his best-laid plans unfurl.

No stranger to Ayckbourn plays, Liza Goddard is perfect as Sheila, the long-suffering wife who may or may not have secrets of her own. Her brightness and apparent naivety as each layer of confusion is peeled away is the ideal contrast to Powell’s philandering chauvinist.

Antony Eden gets the early laughs (thanks to a great visual gag in the opening seconds) as the polite young businessman Greg, smitten by his new girlfriend and determined to uncover the truth about her past after a number of clues make him suspicious enough to follow her to what he believes is her parents’ home in the country. It’s a role that could too quickly descend to a level of clownish silliness, but Eden is lovably energetic and nails some terrific moments of pure comic delight.

Lindsay Campbell has probably the least to play with as Ginny, the wide-eyed and broad-minded secretary with a colourful past, but she gives her a feistiness and grit that drag her away from superficiality.

Peter McKintosh’s sets capture the mood of the era and the contrasts of the play with the opening scene in Ginny’s Swinging Sixties flat and the rest in the garden of Philip and Sheila’s rural retreat, which must go down as one of the most exquisite and stylish sets on tour at the moment.

The unlikely misunderstandings which create the drama of an unfortunate love triangle and out and out comedy (and of which the audience is aware from the start) might seem ridiculously unlikely to modern eyes, yet the players constantly judge well the necessary levels of bewilderment, innocence, and growing understanding.

Perhaps above all it is good to know that in the right hands classic Ayckbourn can still entertain and even his early work (so often squashed by amateurs in village halls) has a real capacity to amuse.

David Guest

Photo: Nobby Clark