It seems a bit of a habit with me to see plays somewhere towards the end of their run. I saw the brilliant All My Sons on its final night, and by the time I blogged about Peter and Alice, it was off the stage. Well, you've got until 31 August to see Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking (1965), and I deeply encourage you to do so if you possibly can!
We had a lovely surprise when we arrived ('we' is me and Andrea, my frequent theatre-buddy) at Wyndham's - our balcony seats were upgraded to brilliant circle seats, right in the middle of the row and tickets which would have cost nearly double what we spent. Sadly that was because of poor ticket sales (which is absurd on a Saturday night in London, but is encouraging for anybody hoping to grab a bargain on any night) - why people weren't there, I can't imagine. It was the best comedy performance I have ever seen on the stage (All My Sons is still the best play I've seen, but nobody could call it a comedy.)
It's difficult to write much about Relatively Speaking without giving away elements of the plot (which I'd accidentally spoilt for myself the day before seeing the play, by starting Ayckbourn's The Crafty Art of Playmaking) but suffice to that the whole thing is a delightful, perfectly executed example of crossed wires, dramatic irony, and conversations at cross purposes. The first scene opens in Ginny's (Eastender's Kara Tointon) flat with a semi-clad Greg (Max Bennett) wandering around the place. There are mysterious phone calls and unexplained packages ("It's a book! From the book people!") and poor Greg is getting suspicious of Ginny (a pair of slippers under the bed need some explaining) - yet also getting increasingly in love with her. They exchange wonderfully witty dialogue, affectionate but with a layer of one-upmanship, while she avoids anything definite and he proposes in the most adorably inept and heartfelt manner. Both characters are a little rough-and-ready, with hearts in the right place, and the audience is certainly drawn into wanting the best for them... but Ginny is off to visit her parents. (Or is she?)
The next scene sees Sheila (Felicity Kendal - YES, FELICITY KENDAL) and her husband Philip (Jonathan Coy) on the patio of the lovely Buckinghamshire house, engaged in a marital dynamic which seems to be of long standing. Sheila is a slightly downtrodden wife, but one who could never be entirely trodden down, one feels. Jonathan Coy is given the only unsympathetic character of the foursome, as a slightly self-important, blustering businessman. He goes off to find a hoe to do some vigorous gardening, and, through the sidegate of the excellent set, Greg arrives... He wants to come and ask Ginny's dad for her hand in marriage, and has somehow caught the train that Ginny missed.
And this is where the fun starts. For reasons which might already have become clear, but which I shan't spoil just in case, nobody is quite on the same page as each other. Least in the know is poor Sheila, and Felicity Kendal is absolutely perfect at her dialogue - her replies show that she has no clue why she has got embroiled in these conversations, and yet is willing to go along with it all, out of sheer kindness. Kendal was every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped and expected.
But she had a match! Max Bennett is sublime as Greg. I saw him in Luise Miller a while ago, and remember being impressed by him, but he excels at comedy. Everyone's comic timing is exceptionally good, with quickfire back-and-forth conversation delivered beautifully, but Bennett manages to make his character entirely lovable. He is decent and proper, but also quick-witted, witty, and down-to-earth. It's rare that a play has a character whom you love and appreciate entirely, but Relatively Speaking manages to have two - which is, indeed, half the cast. Philip was never intended to be sympathetic, so he's out, and Kara Tointon - though very good - never seems quite to grasp which direction she wants to take her character in, and she sort of fell between two stools.
But the real star of the piece is Alan Ayckbourn. His writing is perfect. It is, of course, a standard of farce and comedy to have characters misunderstanding each other, but Relatively Speaking is crafted so brilliantly, with layer after layer of different crossed wires between different characters, Even better, the responses characters give are believable, and it is also always credible that other characters wouldn't realise they were on different pages. So difficult to engineer, and so slickly done.
If you want to laugh for two flying-at-the-speed-of-light hours, and have the chance to go before the end of August, PLEASE give yourself a treat and see this utterly delightful play. I quite want to go straight back and watch it again...