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Relatively Speaking

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Goodness knows why Alan Ayckbourn's debut success has had to wait 46 years for its first West End revival.

Relatively Speaking, short, sweet and savage, has been a regional stand-by for decades for two very good reasons: it's an expertly-constructed laugh-fest that punches way above its weight, while its modest constituents (two sets, four actors) are just the thing for theatres in cash-strapped times.

Felicity Kendal as Sheila
© Nobby Clark

Lindsay Posner's revival freezes the play in 1965, the year it was written, and reveals that even as a 20-something writer Ayckbourn had pinpointed genteel suburbia as a hotbed of infidelity and desperate housewives. The darkness of the playwright's later work is already present in this sunny tale of mistaken identities, with at least two of the characters behaving exceptionally badly towards their partners.

Mysterious phone calls and an ever-growing mountain of flowers and chocolates make young Greg fear the worst about Ginny. Worried that his girlfriend may be seeing a bit on the side, he follows her to what she claims to be her parents' house in the Ayckbournian town of Lower Pendon, Bucks. He's reassured by the respectable middle-aged couple he encounters there; but Ginny's notional parents have secrets of their own.

Like his contemporary Tom Stoppard, the young Ayckbourn was in starry-eyed love with language and as early as Relatively Speaking his ear for the absurd in mundane conversation was attuned. Felicity Kendal's name is synonymous with both playwrights so it comes as a surprise to learn that this is her first appearance in an Ayckbourn play since The Norman Conquests in 1973. Our loss, for her performance as Sheila, the supposed mother, is a masterclass in pace, timing and killer moments.

It was Kendal's screen husband from The Good Life, the late Richard Briers, who played Greg in the first production. That role is now taken by Max Bennett with a dash of the sardonic and bundles of charm whether in or out of his togs, with Kara Tointon making the best of her underwritten role as his field-playing lover.

As the egregious Philip, Jonathan Coy has some startling scenes when he lurches from bumbling husband to scorned lover; when his blood is up the Downton Abbey star is as horrifying as he is hilarious in his red-faced spluttering.

Peter McKintosh has recreated the very worst of 1960s middle England in his designs (Philip's manicured garden is antiseptically hideous) but even these meticulous trappings are of secondary importance to the sweetly-layered performances Posner elicits from his quartet of actors.

Age has not withered Relatively Speaking; it's what it always was - a timeless comedy of sex, sherry and a tell-tale pair of slippers.

- Mark Valencia