Relatively Speaking, by Alan Ayckbourn, was his first big commercial hit, in1967. It had a cast that included Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson and introduced Richard Briers to the London West End. The play, originally called Meeting My Father, came out of the ‘revolutionary’ era of the English Swinging Sixties with all its entertainment taboo explorations into drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll, – think of films such as Tom Jones (1963), The Knack, and How to Get Rid of It (1965), Georgy Girl (1966), to recollect the sprit of the times – and deals with the miscommunications and mistaking of two bourgeois couples, one ensconced, in what appears to be a comfortable but bored marriage, and the other couple about to launch themselves into that daring ‘adventure’. The sexual hypocrisies of the human animal in the frame of the conventions of marriage are exposed in the guise of light weight comedy. Relatively Speaking being the first example of the stealth of the steel fist of Mr Ayckbourn disguised in a soft glove, that became the typical ‘weaponary’ of his coruscating social politics. This method was employed in all of his seventy-odd plays, the soft guise of middle class comedy allowing sly observations of the cruelties of the prison we celebrate as happy domesticity. It is that unflinching wit, that has made his plays distinctive and some of them modern comic classics: The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, A Chorus of Disapproval, Small Family Business etc.
One can genuinely laugh at the clever and witty convolutions of this foursome even some fifty years after Relatively Speaking‘s first production, nothing much has changed in the domestic landscape of our lives it seems. One can only guess at the frisson of daring that some of the characters and situations in this play must have generated in its original audience – perhaps, shocked them – which, today, feels not only dated but ‘politically’ kind of ‘icky’!
On an ingenious set solution to a naturalistic two scene design demand, created by Hugh O’Connor. Director, Mark Kilmurry, confidently guides his cast through the material with an unerring warm comic sensibility. Blessed with the very good casting of actors who have a sure technique to solve the challenges of the writing and a bravura – courage – for the comic essentials of this rather light weight material, the audience can have a very good time. – it did at my performance. There is not much to this play to startle you today, except its rich comic observation and peerless construction (one hopes that our young Australian writers study Mr Ayckbourn’s writing form as a guide for their own creations), and if you want to ‘park’ your self in the theatre, as a summer distraction, holiday treat, and want to have a comfortable and very pleasant evening, you could do no better, in Sydney at the moment. And, that is counting the Sydney Theatre Company’s lamentable go at a French farce, A Flea in her Ear and their enervating American ‘satire’ Speed-the-Plow.
Tracy Mann (Shiela), David Whitney (Philip), Emma Palmer (Ginny) and Jonny Hawkins (Greg) are wonderful together and play with their personable strengths and alert collaborative ‘team’ instincts to bring this play to a bubbly and infectious life – no small feat. All these characters are flesh and bone creations in their hands. Mr Hawkins, a recent graduate from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), introduces himself into the Sydney theatre landscape with all the comic assurance and panache of a seasoned performer. He is a delight. There is not a moment on stage when he does not exist as the naive and charming ‘hero’ of the piece. One cares empathetically for his Greg, and, perhaps, even fears for his future well being in this world of domestic ‘relative’ speaking.
The Ensemble have curated the work of Mr Ayckbourn on a regular basis. I have seen here, Absent Friends, Neighbourhood Watch. It is sensible of this company to know that when they are onto a good thing to stick to it. It is pity that the Ensemble theatre has not the dimensional facilities to present the later and greater work of this great playwright. Still there are many a gem waiting in the wings. Like the Belvoir’s recent production of The Faith Healer, when the all round quality of all the artists of the enterprise are as expert as these artists are, the surety of success is incredibly enhanced – the fateful element of the unavoidable ‘chance’ of failure is considerably reduced with the astute choice of artist
Go, have some silly fun. For some of us, it will be bitter/sweet fun.
Company: Ensemble Theatre
Venue: Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney
Dates: 18 November 2016 – 14 January 2017
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television