Successive decades have crystallised Alan Ayckbourn’s reputation into something solid, even staid. Stunningly prolific, he must be the only playwright to have had two West End plays staged within a year, but written over fifty years apart, and his recent and surprising Surprises was a brave new foray into robot love.
Back in 1969, Relatively Speaking was his first glimmer of success. Although Ayckbourn’s later themes of marriage and social observation are already in place, the play’s rougher edges hint at the influence of the contemporary theatre scene that, from a distance, he seems so apart from. Originally commissioned for a holiday audience, rained off the Scarborough beaches to shelter in light comedy, Ayckbourn’s play was on the other side of the windbreak from the Royal Court revolutionaries. But although he might seem to siding with the old guard of Coward and Rattigan, he’s not exactly reclining, fully suited, in a deckchair fully suited — braving the shallows of the sexual revolution, this is a suburban farce spiced with contemporary social mores.
The opening direction that the play should be set at seven o’clock in the morning was controversial for the play’s original director, who asked that it should be set in the afternoon, to soften the obvious implication that the youthful protagonists, Ginny and George, had just spent the night together. These days, the frisson has to be simulated by a quick flash to perk up the front row, who at a glance looked old enough to have been shocked the first time round. Still, there’s nothing stale about the pair’s breakfast bickering. Ginny (Kara Tointon) is pert in a pressed blue descendent of the dress that the scandal-fearing original director got lengthened; refreshingly, she’s unafraid to be rather unlikeable, if entirely human. Her boyfriend Greg (Max Bennett) has had his suspicions roused by the appearance of an implausible number of bouquets, and a pair of slippers that aren’t his size — awkward and gangly, he isn’t quite a Chelsea man about town, and struggles to negotiate Ginny’s tortuous explanations, complete with outlandishly generous flower-sellers. In classic farce style, Greg becomes embroiled in a case of mistaken identities after racing an unwitting Ginny to what he thinks is her parents’ house. Philip (Jonathan Coy) stomps red-faced among his bright, prized flowers, his hilarious tetchiness offset by the somewhat one-dimensional fluttering of his wife Sheila (Felicity Kendal), as he and his unexpected lunchmates all struggle to work out who exactly everyone is.
Blossoming from bedsit to an old-fashioned, but rather lovely patio set, care of the designer Peter McKintosh, the shape of the play is rather more traditional than its opening might suggest — it rattles along the tightly-crafted lines of a classic farce, and its young couple are bent on marriage, despite their forays into 60s swinging. Director Lindsay Posner keeps things light and pacy, and there are plenty of laughs to rattle the wisteria-clad windows – if not its hardened, post-sexual revolution audience.