Premiering in 1965 and opening in London in 1967, Relatively Speaking was Alan Ayckbourn’s first major success in the capital. It kick-started a prolific career that includes more than 70 full-length plays. The play seems a little dated now, but it marked the turning point in a change of taste in comedy for the nation.
Ayckbourn fuses elements of farce with the dry, almost Chekhovian melancholy that features in so much in his later work. A lecherous older man pursuing the free-thinking younger woman might be a familiar trope, but the pratfalls here are emotional rather than physical.
Robin Herford’s production takes all this into account, allowing the situation to feed the laughs as the characters frantically try to escape the truth.
As the almost engaged couple Greg and Ginny, Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey have a believable chemistry, their relationship already filled with unspoken issues and mistrust. That inability to communicate their feelings to one another is ominously reflected when we meet older couple Sheila and Philip on their patio having breakfast. Though they’ve been married for 20 years, their communication is equally constipated, just more comfortable.
Rachel Fielding is wonderful as the eager-to-please Sheila, and there’s a sense of a whole world of emotional turmoil going on beneath the surface. James Simmons’ Philip also has hidden depths, they are however darker and far more arrogant.
Herford’s production is a robust, thoughtful revival but, unusually for the venue, Michael Holt’s set seems over-thought and under-designed for the space.