Relatively Speaking premiered in 1967 and is the sort of show that is, by contemporary standards, very much of its time, and not just because of mentions in the script of ‘seven and six’ and other pre-decimalisation currency terms. Greg (Christopher Bonwell) wants to marry Ginny (Lianne Harvey).
Unsurprisingly, he needs to ask permission to do this. But because Ginny hasn’t been entirely truthful as to where her parents live, a very English disagreement arises between Greg and Philip (James Simmons), while Philip’s stoic wife Sheila (a highly convincing Rachel Fielding) proves to be considerably more discerning than Philip seems to think she is.
Greg’s clipped tones may, elsewhere, have suggested a reasonably well-off lifestyle, but here, he expresses unhappiness about the cost of a day return train fare and other expenses. One does appreciate in the exchanges between Philip and Sheila why marriage has been referred to in some quarters as a ‘three-ring circus’ – the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and the suffering. It may be one of Alan Ayckbourn’s earlier plays but the skill in drawing laughter from the audience from a relationship gone somewhat sour without leaving a bitter aftertaste is evident, thanks to a cast who play for laughs but without being insufferably hammy.
Michael Holt’s set design captures both the tight conditions of the younger couple’s flat in London (I wondered momentarily whether this production ought to be called Relatively Cramped) and the larger space of later scenes in a Buckinghamshire garden very well. A pity, then, that the programme’s design wasn’t nearly as decent, with several pages, including the credits for the cast and production team, printed in white text against a light green background – only with the benefit of the harsh florescent strip lighting on the Tube home could I decipher any of it.
Sheila, muses Philip, “costs me thirty quid a week to run and that doesn’t include overheads,” who otherwise isn’t so much infuriated as world-weary. The thing about not telling it like it is (in other words, lying) is that the said lie has to be remembered in order to be sustained, and in the course of ongoing conversations, it becomes harder to keep the façade up. The comic timing all round is impressive, and in a studio theatre setting, the facial expressions, hilarious as they sometimes are, can be seen from the back row almost as well as from the front.
Any shock factors that may have existed in productions of this play a generation ago have largely if not entirely dissipated now. But the show still has some relevance. Then, as now, not letting people finish speaking gives rise to grossly inaccurate assumptions about what is really going on. Not all the punchlines raised a smile let alone a laugh – some were rather predictable, truth be told – but it remains a well-constructed and engaging play, with astute observations on how withholding information so as not to hurt another person can end up causing even more pain than was ever intended.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Relatively Speaking, directed by Robin Herford, former Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough and director of The Woman in Black – West End. The cast of the revival of this enduringly funny comedy of mistaken identities and excruciating misunderstandings – currently playing at the Mill at Sonning Theatre – comprises: Christopher Bonwell as Greg (The Entertainer – UK tour; In Praise of Love – Theatre Royal Bath; Bad Jews – Theatre Royal Haymarket), Rachel Fielding as Sheila (Arcadia – Royal National Theatre; Love Loss and What I Wore and Father of the Bride – The Mill Sonning), Lianne Harvey as Ginny (An Inspector Calls – UK and USA Tour; The Trials of Mary – Eastern Angles) and James Simmons as Philip (The Lion King and The Woman in Black – West End).
By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Robin Herford
15 September – 9 October
Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm
Matinees on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 3.30pm