Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking may have seemed quite modern in the 60s when it was first staged – after all, its heroine has a sexually chequered past and not only lives to tell the tale, but positively gets away with it, which is still a bit of a rarity nearly 50 years later. However, it’s the most ‘contemporary’ bits of the play that feel most dated, while the classic farce at its core retains the capacity to entertain.
The establishing scenes, when Ginny (Lindsey Campbell) and Greg (Anthony Eden) bicker about their relationship and his jealousy as she readies to (so she tells him) visit her parents make for a slow and frustrating opener: dragged out and mostly unfunny, the jokes very thinly spread. And while Greg may have seemed a charming, if slightly clueless, everyman to earlier eyes, in today’s world he comes across as little more than a whiny stalker. His behaviour – travelling to Ginny’s ‘parents’ uninvited and unannounced to get her father’s permission for her hand in marriage (despite the fact they’ve only been dating a month) is less grand romantic gesture than fodder for a restraining order.
The opening set up for the older actors, too, feels like the worst kind of seventies sitcom: philandering, curmudgeonly husband (Robert Powell) and his eternally tolerant – if occasionally gently chiding – fragrant wife (Liza Goddard), having breakfast in the sumptuous back garden of their lovely home (Peter McKintosh’s attractive, expensive looking set).
But when Greg turns up – and it becomes apparent almost at once (to us, at least) that these are not Ginny’s parents, but that Powell is the older man she has recently been involved with – there begins a precision timed comedy of confusion it’s pretty much impossible not to laugh at. Effectively choreographed by director Robin Herford, all four actors excel in the dance, never missing a step, though Campbell suffers slightly from a thinly written role.
Powell is on scene-stealing form as he blusters to hide his dismay (though his cruelty is rather glossed over – he’s ready to blackmail Ginny to come on a ‘work’ trip with him, full knowing that she wants to move on with Greg); while Eden as the puppyish would-be suitor is an unwitting grenade thrown into this domestic idyll, whose disruption results in a pleasing upheaval to the established power structures. But it’s Goddard who has the most fun, remaining wilfully serene throughout, while subtly suggesting the kind of inner strength it would take to put up with that sort of husband without poisoning his Sunday roast.
This is undeniably theatre at its safest: a glossy set, a big name playwright and a handful of faces off the telly expertly delivering undemanding (if often very funny) fare. It’s hard to find much fault with such productions – they do exactly what they say on the tin, and your enjoyment of them is likely dictated by how carefully you read the label.