Noël Coward described Relatively Speaking as ‘a beautifully constructed and very funny comedy’ and this production at the Jermyn Street Theatre demonstrates how right he was.
Spot-on timing, impeccable delivery and clarity of enunciation.
The play gave Alan Ayckbourn his big break. Having premiered in Scarborough in 1965, the year in which it is set, it opened at the Duke of York’s, London in 1967 with the well-established Michael Hordern and Celia Johnson; it also gave a major boost to the career of Richard Briers, then aged thirty-four.
Greg (Christopher Bonwell) and Ginny (Lianne Harvey) live together as a couple in her London flat. One day he is surprised to find a large pair of men's slippers under her bed. They’re not his and they are certainly not hers. Suspicions are aroused and the delicate nature of their relationship is exposed. Under the pretext of visiting her parents, whom she won’t let Greg meet, Ginny makes the journey to Buckinghamshire to end her affair with Philip (James Simmons), her former employer, a much older man married to Sheila (Rachel Fielding). Greg throws caution to the wind and decides to follow her. Thus the foundation is laid for the subsequent drama. So far it is all plain sailing, but Greg takes a taxi to the station and gets on the train that Ginny misses by walking, thus arriving before her. The couple's cramped flat is now remarkably transformed into a garden patio to the accompaniment of Jimmie Rodgers’ English Country Garden; another shining example of what is so often achieved in terms of sets on the tiny stage of this theatre. Well done, Michael Holt on this occasion.
Opening the play, Bonwell has a delightful schoolboy innocence and mischievous naivety that contrasts with the evasive duplicity of Harvey, whose fractionally hesitant reponses to every new question reveal how much Ginny’s mind is having to work overtime in order to save the day. Then, with the scene change, it all becomes barmy in Bucks. Fielding enters, beaming beautifully in a period pink morning outfit. She’s adorable and Simmons, playing something of the henpecked, dutiful husband, nervously hiding his deceit, is a perfect match for her. Together they make a fabulous duo of old-school actors. With the arrival of Greg and then Ginny the conversations become as tangled as the weeds in Philip’s garden. By this time costume designer Natalie Titchener has found Fielding a fabulous frock and the comedy of farcical misunderstandings and mistaken identities runs its course to the final twist.
For those who want to know what theatre used to be like when much of it was designed purely as indulgent entertainment, or who wish to reminisce about a bygone age of respectability and gentility, there are few better examples than Relatively Speaking, directed with precision here by Robin Herford. Drama students could also learn a lot about spot-on timing, impeccable delivery and clarity of enunciation possessed by the cast, whose RP is a refreshing throwback to the days before mumbling became fashionable.