Saturday, 02 July 2022

Play wasn’t comedy gold... it was platinum

ROBERT POWELL and Liza Goddard, a very good start! An early Alan Ayckbourn play, even better!

ROBERT POWELL and Liza Goddard, a very good start! An early Alan Ayckbourn play, even better! Robin Herford directing, let the bells ring out because we have reached platinum standard.

It really doesn’t get much better than Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at the Oxford Playhouse this week. The work was born in 1965 and developed for the West End in 1967 but it shows anything but middle-aged spread and complacency despite its 50 years.

This is funny, really funny. The dialogue is sharp as a shark’s tooth. It’s written in classic farce style with disbelief, double-takes and coverings-up to spare.

But this can mean nothing if the timing isn’t there and here all four of the cast give a masterclass in how to do it — none more so than Robert Powell, who knows how to squeeze the last gasping laugh out of every syllable. What a treat it was to watch him.

Liza Goddard is his very able foil and Antony Eden, as the innocent Greg, excels with his naivety and adoration.

We have some classic themes: younger woman and older man, the dutiful wife pretending she doesn’t know, and the poor sap who’s caught in the middle.

Ayckbourn later went on to define a new kind of theatre with stunning stagecraft and searing social commentary masked as comedy.

But this is a straight farce — no trouserless vicars, or unclad ladies, or even vicars dressing up as ladies — a comedy of manners and dialogue based on a case of mistaken identity.

There’s also a pleasing lack of moralising.

We open in a grubby bedsit with posters of Audrey Hepburn on the wall from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Young Ginny, played tantalisingly by Lindsey Campbell, taps into the Hepburn image — there’s even a physical resemblance.

These were the days when women did not have easy access to careers and progression, so sometimes they sought other ways, like seducing the boss.

That was a theme of more than one Hepburn film and is at the heart of Relatively Speaking.

This play manages to blend the classic structures of Coward and Rattigan with the emerging social consciousness of the Sixties. The secret of good farce is take an absurdity and then apply normal life to it — that normal life suddenly finds itself bending and twisting all over the place to adapt.

Relatively Speaking gives us just that: one unbelievable thing, that two people can be duped into thinking that the other is someone else. After that it all falls into place — or falls apart more like.

A note on the director, Robin Herford: he has delivered two excellent comedy-dramas in the last two years at The Mill at Sonning with Educating Rita and Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

Relatively Speaking only adds more shine to his reputation. He knows how to work actors and bring the best out of a situation.

To quote another Ayckbourn character with whom your reviewer at the moment is very familiar: “You know it’s going to happen but you don’t know when it’s going to happen, and just as importantly, you don’t know how it’s going to happen. That’s comedy!”

Until Saturday.

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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