“Dear Alan Ayckbourn. All my congratulations on a beautifully constructed and very funny play. I enjoyed every moment of it = Noel Coward.”
Praise from ‘The Master’ is praise indeed and that telegram triggered a glorious career, encompassing 80 plays in 60 years (so far). ‘Relatively Speaking’ was one of Ayckbourn’s earliest – written in pre-decimalisation days – and his first West End hit.
To perfect his craft, in 1965 he set himself the task of writing a traditional, well-made play with no time shifts, body swaps or ghostly apparitions; though he was already playing with technique, with different characters repeating the same dialogue at different times…to much hilarity. And Coward is right. I was reminded last night at The Wightman Theatre how ‘terribly clever’ it is. For example, in a tactic he then adopts for the rest of his career, Ayckbourn drops an almost insignificant detail into the plot – it happens to be the Third Sunday After Trinity – which changes everything.
Coward is also credited with the old theatrical adage, ‘Never discuss a play at the interval’.
One of the perennial problems with Ayckbourn is ‘Act One’. His plots are so ingenious and his characters so intriguing he has to impart a lot of information early on, to ensure the later mayhem works a treat. So modern-day audiences, expecting a laugh with every line, do have to be patient until after the ice-cream. Then the rewards come in waves.
Ayckbourn writes some serious contradictions for the actors playing the newly-met young lovers to cope with. In their first scene together, they have to be hopelessly impetuous – madly driven by sexual desire. But Ginny is also being desperately secretive about her embarrassing back story with ‘the much older man’. And Greg has plenty of cause to be suspicious about silent phone calls to her flat and abundant boxes of chocolate.
This is the third time I’ve reviewed Bexie Archer (previously playing Shakespeare) and she is a bright, fearless, rising star. She is tantalising and tricksy on stage and completely un-phased by either of England’s greatest writers. Her voice work is superb…even down to the way she modulates her embarrassed laughter.
Expectation seemed to be weighing heavily upon Tom Scott on the First Night. Ayckbourn based the character of young Greg upon himself and then cast a fresh-faced, hyper-active, Richard Briers to play him. Scott took a rather deadpan approach to the part…and it took him a while to press his passion button – but he was much more at home in the later, group melees.
Simon Spencer Hyde and Hilary Derrent (as the older couple) are classic Ayckbourn actors. They deliver his jokes so well, I could imagine the Wizard of Scarborough casting them himself.
Through a confusion of trains and taxis Greg and Ginny arrive separately at their country house and the mistaken identities get more and more excruciating.
Ginny’s ‘much older man’ is Philip; the sort of chap who wears a tie to do the gardening. The very cut of Hyde’s jib gives his deceit away. Derrent beautifully plays his long-suffering wife Sheila as a befuddled but accommodating woman, trying to make sense of her deranged Sunday without upsetting anyone.
This is the first of a new season of professional plays at The Wightman – a venue that is improving all the time – and gives Shropshire audiences the perfect opportunity to enjoy Ayckbourn’s genesis all over again.
Visit www.thewightman.co.uk for bookings & more information