Relatively Speaking

Theatre
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Relatively Speaking
Photograph: Clare Hawley
Emma Palmer and Jonny Hawkins

Mark Kilmurry directs Alan Ayckbourn's comedy set in swinging ’60s London

If you like subtle English humour more than Austin Powers parodies, this comedy written in 1967 and set in Swinging London will have you laughing out loud through its serpentine trail of collateral damage during the sexual revolution. And if you enjoy a detective’s thrill from figuring out who the slippers under the bed really belong to, you’ll come out feeling both morally and intellectually satisfied.

Relatively Speaking launched Alan Ayckbourn's long career in 1967, and has remained one of Britain’s most popular and prolific playwrights. Here the Ensemble Theatre continues its excellent track record with his works (most recently, Neighbourhood Watch). In contrast to the Georges Feydeau farce A Flea in Her Ear (currently on stage at Sydney Opera House, in a production by Sydney Theatre Company), Ayckbourn’s well-made play avoids French devices such as preposterous coincidences; he builds a surprisingly credible and engrossing narrative stemming from just one little white lie.

The sexually liberated Sheila (here a Twiggy-like Emma Palmer resplendent in Mary Quant style by designer Hugh O’Connor) tells her less-liberated and somewhat dorky lover Greg (Jonny Hawkins) that the handwritten address he finds in her London bedroom is that of her parents. When Greg believes and acts upon this falsehood, it propagates across a wide span of misunderstandings, and is ultimately adopted as a conspiratorial deception that threatens to blow up in the Buckinghamshire garden of the less-than-happily married couple Philip and Sheila.

As the faux parents, David Whitney and Tracy Mann beautifully and gently convey a low-grade toxic chemistry of guilt and resentment with their petulant conversations about substandard breakfast marmalade and a misplaced hoe.

Director Mark Kilmurry expertly guides the pressures moving Ayckbourn's steam engine of embarrassment and outrage to its perfect surprise conclusion. Even if the first few minutes strike you as a little slow getting up speed (Greg’s undies aren’t as shocking as they would have been in 1967), watch out: you’ll soon be rolling about your seat.

By: Jason Catlett

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