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Relatively Speaking

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Alan Ayckbourn’s first big success dates from the mid 1960s and Orla O'Loughlin’s stylish production places it firmly in the decade that saw the birth of the permissive society. It’s presented as a period piece, thus combating any accusations of being dated.

Designer Anthony Lamble has clearly relished the opportunity to create a grungy-looking London bedsit for swinging young Londoner Ginny to share with her latest man, callow young Greg. And Lamble rises wonderfully to the challenge of instantly pulling this back to reveal the full Sunday morning glory of an English country house and garden! What’s more he’s had a ball dolling Ginny up in mini-dress and kinky boots and the more mature Sheila in Mad Men-style housecoat and pyjamas and then shirtwaister.

The premise is that Ginny plans to put her swinging days behind her, extricate herself from an ongoing affair with her ex-boss Philip and marry Greg. A quick trip to Philip’s country home should do it – but first she must convince the conveniently naïve Greg that she’s off to see her parents. He gets hold of ‘their’ address and manages to get there first, intending to ask her ‘father’ for her hand, and finds himself helping her ‘mother’ in the kitchen. So the scene is set for the sort of painful misunderstandings and fabrications that are pure and hilarious Ayckbourn, revealing, between the laughs, the cracks in the relationships.

O’Loughlin and her cast establish the necessary pace and expertly orchestrate the comic climaxes. David Acton makes a very funny middle-aged Lothario of Philip, at first apoplectic and then ducking and diving to get out of the holes he and Ginny find themselves digging. Gillian Bevan provides a perfect foil to the developing mayhem with a lovely calm stillness, that housewifely stoicism left over from the 1950s eventually spiced with a knowingness that promises a difficult future for Philip. Ellie Beavan successfully evokes the iconic Swinging Sixties ‘dolly bird’ – with obvious enjoyment. And Greg Haiste has the perfect demeanour for that staple character of many a sitcom, the naïve well-meaning young man trying to do the right thing.

Philip Gladwell’s lighting is especially glorious in the garden scenes and a soundscape (no programme credit) of garden birds laced with a gentle acoustic version of the Beatles’ "All You Need Is Love" enhances the sense of time and place.  

It’s perhaps surprising for the Watermill to start a new season with vintage Ayckbourn, but the delighted audience laughter on press night testify that this is a popular choice which was after all an important landmark in Sir Alan’s career.

- Judi Herman


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