Regarded by many as a “quintessential Ayckbourn play”, Relatively Speaking emerges 40 years after its West End triumph as something rather more difficult to categorise. Scenes and characters from a conventional well-made 1960s-style farce rub shoulders with a more realistic, yet more fantastic, world (quintessentially Ayckbourn, indeed) where the wheels that drive the human comedy remain invisible.
Relatively Speaking is a play of two couples, the relationship between whom becomes slowly apparent to the audience and the characters themselves. Greg and Ginny, bright young things in London, are on the brink of marriage, though Ginny’s flat contains disturbing signs of other affairs. Ginny claims she's visiting her parents in the country for Sunday lunch and Greg, finding the address (shades of The Importance of Being Earnest), decides to follow her.
Philip and Sheila, old enough to be Ginny’s parents, pursue a desultory conversation over breakfast in the garden with oblique hints of deception and infidelity scattered among the marmalade and the Sunday papers. Greg and Ginny arrive separately and usher in a medley of lies, deception and misunderstandings.
Ironically, it's the up-to-date modern couple who have dated in every respect. The opening scene contains rather too much over-enthusiastic rushing around and too many of the glibly unconvincing excuses beloved of television sitcom. Dominic Hecht plays Greg with unrelenting puppyish energy and willingness to please, but is something of a caricature of the young Richard Briers who created the part in London. Katie Foster-Barnes’ self-absorption as Ginny fits the part well enough, but she's too mannered for comfort.
In Alan Ayckbourn’s production, this opening scene has more animation than life. Even the set is garish, then, half an hour in, a splendid scene change of military precision ushers in a gorgeous garden set (Jan Bee Brown) and a middle-aged couple subverting the clichés of married life and exploring the sub-text of rounds of golf and mail deliveries. We are finally, joyously, in the world that Sir Alan has made his own. Expertly played, with immaculate comic timing, by Philip York and Eileen Battye, Philip and Sheila deliver a conducted tour of the mores of the English middle-class with never a false note.
More conventional than many of his later plays, Relatively Speaking still contains enough of Ayckbourn’s unique comedy of manners to delight a 21st-century audience: the moral and narrative ambiguity of the ending, for instance, or the masterly use of “I understand” to mean the exact opposite.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough)