Alan Ayckbourn captured the spirit of an age when he wrote Relatively Speaking. It was 1967, and the height of the Swinging Sixties, when free love, the Pill and a more relaxed attitude to sex prevailed.
What is astonishing is how well the comedy stands the test of time. Nearly 50 years later its beautifully constructed and fluid dialogue between two couples is still achingly funny.
Theatre Royal Bath is touring with the production once again and last night it opened at Milton Keynes Theatre with a couple of audience favourites in the lead.
Comedy doesn’t feature high on Robert Powell’s CV but he has splendid timing and seems right at home in Ayckbourn suburbia (in this case, somewhere near Princes Risborough, judging by the out-sized map on stage).
Here the goatee-bearded Powell is playing Philip who, aptly, is an old goat whose head had been turned by a very young girl in a very short miniskirt working in his office.
Liza Goddard is his long-suffering wife, Sheila, whose sunny disposition and scatty demeanour (yes, okay, typecasting, but the lovely Liza does it SO well) results in her putting up with a lot from her philandering husband.
The middle aged couple (stretching it a bit considering he is 72 and she is 66) live in an idyllic exec des-res with a gorgeous garden. They sip sherry on the patio before dinner, take breakfast under the wisteria and enjoy a seemingly blissful existence.
Except..well, god they’re bored. He plays golf in his downtime and spends a lot of time “working late at the office” – now there’s a well-used euphemism – yet he suspects his wife of having an affair because she receives letters on a Sunday (in the days when we had a half decent Royal Mail).
She, on the other hand, is the model doormat, cooking lovely meals, laying out her husband’s clothes, and making small talk about the weather – actually that seems to be about her only topic of conversation.
But Relatively Speaking starts off in a grotty London bedsit where newly loved-up Greg (former Milky Bar Kid Antony Eden) is staying with his latest girlfriend, the lovely Ginny.
They have only been together a few weeks and the puppy-like Greg, who entertains the audience with a quick lesson in sheet-wrapping when he wakes up from a fitful slumber, is still finding out about Ginny.
Ginny, it seems is a bit of a goer. A woman of the free-thinking 1960s, she has had previous lovers – of course – including a man much older than herself…
Fallen in yet? Alan Ayckbourn hit the ground running with this masterful comedy. His brilliant set up sees utter confusion ensue when, separately, both Ginny (a rather shrill Lindsey Campbell) and Greg decide to visit the beautiful Bucks home of Philip and Sheila.
With the dynamic constantly shifting between the four we listen to a succession of conversations as the nature of their relationship to each other is misunderstood, comprehended and lost again.
Liza Goddard’s wonderful, almost imperceptible expression, when the penny finally drops as to what is going on, is a masterclass in comedy. She is one of our finest actresses with a lifetime’s experience as a comic actor and, quite honestly, can do no wrong.
Her delivery is faultless and can turn quite humdrum stage directions into rib-tickling moments of merriment.
Antony Eden, who I last saw scaring theatre-goers in The Woman In Black, is splendid. He is the picture of innocence, giving a bold and buoyant performance as a lovesick beau determined to win over his girlfriend’s parents at whatever the cost.
I don’t know why but he reminded me of Top Gear’s Richard Hammond. Boundless enthusiasm, a willingness to please, and with effortless charm, Greg tackles every difficult conversation with the “in-laws” with aplomb. He’d make a lovely son-in-law.
Relatively Speaking is one of those quintessentially English comedies that bristles with double-entendres, glowing performances, and sparkling dialogue.
It is a tragedy that, despite being so obviously popular with audiences, they are now on the endangered list. Even Ayckbourn’s own work later turned darker and more cynical.
You may argue that it’s cosy, safe, comedy that doesn’t push any boundaries but you’d be wrong. It is sublime in its construction and unquestionably clever, offering a perfect night’s entertainment.
The only thing that left me baffled was why Philip kept disappearing into the bowels of the garden to look for a hoe – only to return in a change of clothes. Who keeps their wardrobe in the potting shed?
Relatively Speaking runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday. It’s an absolute joy. Buy a ticket or two.
Alan Ayckbourn delivers a masterclass with this sparkling, beautifully constructed comedy about sex and confusion.