Thursday, 7 November 2013

Relatively Speaking still a hoot some 50 years on

Forget p.c. Forget western society's grudging baby-steps toward gender equality in the past few decades. Drop yourself back into the ethos between the time of Mad Men and the "Swinging 60's". Then hie yourself to Western Gold Theatre's production of Relatively Speaking being staged at the PAL stage on Cardero to hear yourself LYFAO. Because that's what the ingenious 1965 script by England's comic master Alan Ayckbourn, written when he was just 27, demands of viewers even 50 years on.

Plot overview :  Two young lovers, Ginny and Greg, have been canoodling in Ginny's flat in London since they met a month earlier at a party. Ginny has claimed Greg's virginity, and he's utterly schmitten. He proposes to her, albeit off-handedly, on the spot. She says she needs to go visit Mom and Dad in the country to warm them up to the prospect of a son-in-law. The morning has already witnessed a few mysterious phone calls, a pair of oversize men's slippers under Ginny's bed, myriad bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates littering the place. All of this has Greg suspicious that the more worldly and sexperienced Ginny is still attached to another lover, but ultimately Greg clings to his naif persona. This is *love*. I believe in it. I'm going with it.  So, unbeknownst to Ginny, he also trains it out to her "parents'" place in Buckinghamshire to seek their blessing of the impending nuptials. He arrives there ahead of her. Here's where the fun starts :  it's immediately apparent to the audience this is really the country home of Ginny's older lover, her ex-boss, and his adultered wife. With Greg understandably thinking they are her parents -- has his true love Ginny not told him this repeatedly? -- the ensuing comic possibilities are thus rampant and rife. 

The play occurs over two acts, four scenes, in two hours. Act 1 is a long-ish and slightly tedious exposition of Ginny and Greg's blossoming romance aimed, now, at marriage though they've only known each other some four weeks. By way of contrast, in Scene 2, we meet the "parents" taking sun in their garden with "Dad" Philip grousing about an inferiour marmalade "Mom" Sylvia has bought and wishing for jam instead. Shortly, no doubt projecting some guilt over his own extra-marital dalliance, he accuses his wife of having a not-so-clandestine affair. When Greg arrives and engages the affable Sylvia in chit-chat, thinking her his mother-in-law to be, Philip is convinced Greg is Sylvia's lover. Soon Ginny arrives. Her purpose is to cut Philip off for good once-&-for-all. Stop with the flowers and the chocolates and the phone calls. When she finds, alors!, that Greg is also there helping the phony "Mom" prepare lunch, well, the stage is set lit.-&-fig. for a jolly merry romp. And it is !

Act 2 becomes a silly but wondrously clever caper of lies, tightly-crafted miscues, confusion and panic all borne of various levels of mistaken identity that dodge-&-swerve past one another. It's comedy-lite with no subtext messaging or serious intent whatever -- a wordplay game being played strictly for the fun of it. I was reminded instantly of that old hippie quip about people who talk at cross-purposes : "I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm afraid what you heard is not what I meant."
(N.B. See post-script summary comments by playwright Ayckbourn below on the how/why RS script came to be.)

First impressions and character-take :  It was apparent there were two audiences in the same PAL room at the same time watching this revival : Group 1 who for years have known and treasured Ayckbourn's comic jibes at middle class marital anxieties and hypocricies, and Group 2 who somehow haven't. Group 1 types like myself enjoyed the show for sentimental reasons if for no other. Newbies to Ayckbourn, like my buddy, could not resist these stereotypical Brits caught with their knickers, and their mores, at half-mast. Lots of gigglery from both groups.

Director Anthony F. Ingram made just-right picks in all categories. In the end the show-stealer had to be wife Sheila Carter played wonderfully deadpan by Anna Hagan. She is the steady loyal country wife who welcomes complete strangers to her garden and treats them to lunch and sherry. In executing the role without an iota of falseness or exaggeration about her character, she is the perfect foil for all the eager animation of the others around her. Her A-ha! moment at the end, and the final hint to hubby she in fact may have a paramour after all, was sheer fun. 

As husband Philip, Terence Kelly masters a range of facial contortions that delight every moment as they champion each of life's emotions -- mad, sad, glad -- sometimes serially, sometimes atop one another. Prime-time performance for sure.

Stacie Steadman plays Ginny, and she too provides just the right range of conflicting emotions : from coy coquette to mischievous deviant to genuine lover, current and ex- both. 

Fiance Greg is played brilliantly throughout by Jay Hindle. His is the best-written of Ayckbourn's character dialogue in this piece i.m.o. -- all eagerness and wonder and happy puppy -- think Odie, here, of Garfield comic strip fame. 

As an ensemble, the WGT troupe clicks delightfully. 

This viewer was, meanwhile, a bit bemused by the mix of accents coming at me : hard-working Brit white collar efforts from Ginny and Greg; quasi-Brit from Philip; Canuck from Sylvia. That's more niggle than outright natter at director Ingram's varied stage instructions to the cast, however : fact is to my untrained ear Hindle and Steadman project bloody good accents that ring true. They bring out Ayckbourn's ever-so-English milieux (quite properly -- I can't imagine this piece being written by a North American).  

The key to Ayckbourn's word-trickery b.t.w. is its grammar scheme -- viz. the lowly pronoun. By ever-avoiding names attached to the "he", "she", "his" and "her" reference points in the dialogue, confusion can only reign, which Ayckbourn does masterfully. In day-to-day conversation I regularly scold folks I yak with : "Hold on a second, I've lost the antecedent to your pronoun. Who the heck are we talking about here -- your daughter or your dog...?"

Production values :  Set designer Glenn MacDonald creates a clever two-fer set anchored in brickwork. From 60's studio flat strung through by clotheslines adorned with towels, shirts and sheets; tables and chairs enshrouded with blankets; Stones, The Who and Moody Blues posters plastered on the walls; ersatz pine 3-drawer dresser; and, best of all, the roll-away bed ! oh gawd spare me such memories. 

Pull all that montage and mish-mash away and the set morphs into a tasteful country garden whose brick is adorned with iron grillwork planters and a classic Greek peeing boy-statue that Philip uses to clean his paws with. For her part, costume designer Sydney Cavanagh puts all the right clothes on all the right characters -- the frumpish country Carters nicely counterbalanced by the more au courant togs of Ginny and Greg. The soundscape backdrop of a Tubular Bells-like version of the Beatles' You Say Good-bye and I Say Hello was spot-on.

Who gonna like : The wait until Act 2 for the magic of Alan Ayckbourn's verbal sleight-of-hand to fully engage the viewer is well worth it. Folks weary of t.v. sit-com schlock and formula contemporary comedy who love language and all its myriad possibilities for meaning will delight in both AA's quick-tempo script and WGT's interpretation. "Stuck" people protesting "the ethos between the time of Mad Men and the 'Swinging 60's'", well, maybe they should just stay at home & give this one a miss.

P.S. See the following notes about the script from various sources.

> Reason for the play : While working as a sketch writer for Ronnie Barker (of The Two Ronnies fame), Ayckbourn, then 27, was asked by Scarborough Theatre artistic director Stephen Joseph for a play "...which would make people laugh when their seaside summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies."

> Structure of the play : Stephen Joseph also assured Ayckbourn "...there's absolutely no harm whatsoever, whatever you think of the state of the theatre and playwriting in general, to try and write a 'well-made' play [a la Noel Coward]; that is, a play, that, in general terms, is fairly actor-proof, well-constructed and works..." 

> Playwright's cut at his own script and its conceit : "Relatively Speaking is a little machine of a play. Character plays a fairly secondary role in it -- everybody's too busy trying to find out what's going on and 'character' doesn't have a chance... Plays like RS are continually knotting and unknotting. There's never a moment when somebody isn't discovering or about to discover something."

> Creating the play : "The devious plot was the result of sheer frenzy and the dialogue of tearing haste. In just over a week the play was written, aided by my wife's blue pencil, her constant suggestions and her cups of coffee."

An adrenalin buzz it surely is, readers, once the momentum swings into action in Act 2. Fun fun fun writ large. Until Dec. 1st. With 2 p.m. Sat-Sun matinees, too.

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