Relatively Speakings, Festival Theatre, Malvern

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The Independent Culture

Relatively Speakings Alan Ayckbourn’s first West End hit back in1967 and I was intrigued to discoverwhetherit had dated when set against his recent darker material.

Surprisingly, Alan Strachan’s production is set firmly in the1960s and opens in a poky London bedsit, suitably decorated with Op Art prints. The soundtrack (the Kinks, the Zombies) also signifies a revolution, not only in pop, but also in sexual politics.The new young lovers, Gregand Ginny, are plausible and well played by Robin Whiting and Siobhan Hewlett. Their ping pong morning-after dialogue is fresh and witty.

Defiantly irresistible in her iconic turquoise mini-dress, Ginny promises Greg, “there’s no one else”, despite the flowers and boxes of chocolates that litter the bedsit. Greg is too besotted to believe they may have been left by another man.This is the “permissive” 1960s,and Ayckbourn is keen to reverse sexual roles.

After only a month together Greg wants to get married. “One day, but not at the moment” is Ginny’s hurried put-down. But the fun really starts when Greg pursues Ginny to what heassumes is her parental home inthe country. This is Ayckbourn’s cue for a brilliant comedy of misunderstandings.The house is infact the home of Ginny’s older, married lover Philip (played by Peter Bowles), and she is there to break off the relationship.

The scene change – “wicked”city to “pastoral” English country garden – is a time worn comedic device. However, Greg’s meeting with Philip, who he assumes is his future father-in-law, is more than a masterclass in double entendre– it’s also a class confrontation. Greg’s paltry wages from selling insurance can’t possibly match the means of Ginny’s older wealthier lover. To compound the farce, Greg remains convinced that Philip’s dotty wife Sheila (movingly played by Diane Fletcher), is in fact Ginny's mother. Bowles is outstanding, immaculately groomed but still the bounder. When he slickly asserts that “a man in my position can’t afford that publicity”, we are reminded that Ayckbourn wrote this play a short time after the Profumo affair.

Hilarious and fantastically written, Ayckbourn’s script makes the best of ingeniously executed set pieces, but his sympathy with the characters’ vulnerability transcends manufactured farce. Setting the play in the1960s also works brilliantly, but the details – four penny bus fares and post on Sunday – are curios. What’s remarkable is how little Relatively Speaking has dated.

Norwich Theatre Royal (01603630000) tonight to 19 Jul; then touring to 2 Aug

Peter Rose, PhD researcher, Worcester