Alan Ayckbourn’s first stage success, Relatively Speaking premiered as long ago as 1965, under the rather uninspiring title of Meet My Father. The creative impetus was a modest one: Stephen Joseph, the playwright’s then mentor, simply asked him to write a play which would keep Scarborough holidaymakers entertained when the weather turned bad. The London production – starring a young Richard Briers – was such a hit, it attracted praise from Noel Coward, and helped heal the trauma of Ayckbourn’s previous West End disaster, the critically mauled Mr Whatnot.
Lovebirds Greg and Ginny have begun co-habiting, and are entertaining thoughts of getting married. But when a number of odd and unexpected happenings start to occur – mysterious phone calls, unexpected deliveries of chocolates - a suspicious Greg starts to believe he may not be the only man in Ginny’s life. Opting to follow her, Greg winds up at the country house of upper middle class couple Philip and Sheila. Naturally, a series of farcical misunderstandings quickly ensue.
Light comedy needs a master’s touch and director Chris Honer moves the action along at a consistently amusing pace. The four strong cast give polished performances: Malcolm Scates is suitably manic as Philip, whilst Simon Harrison is engagingly goofy as the socially inept Greg. The fetching Leila Crerar injects a much needed touch of pathos into the character of Ginny; and as Sheila, Lucy Treagar displays just the right level of bemused detachment.
Ayckbourn has always considered playwrighting a craft, using words in the manner that a carpenter might use wood. Like a kitchen table, Relatively Speaking is a solid piece of work, and the escalating confusion is skilfully orchestrated. But it many respects it feels like a calling card script.
From the late 70’s onwards, Ayckbourn’s work grew darker in tone, and by this time he had also started to experiment with form and structure, sometimes to remarkable effect (Intimate Exchanges for example, is eight plays with sixteen possible endings performed by two actors playing ten characters). By comparison, Relatively Speaking appears rather staid and predictable – how could it not be?
This is certainly an entertaining production but its function is really no different today than it was 40 odd years ago; to distract the punters from another rainy summer.