Tag Archives: Alan Ayckbourn

“Relatively Speaking” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Director Robin Herford’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s classic is a well-crafted and high-quality affair. Much like the play itself.

Young Greg and Ginny, who we meet first, become rapidly engaged despite his suspicions and her worries. Taking the roles, Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey convince and intrigue as young things in love… if warily so. Random gifts and phone calls cause confusion.

An older married couple, Philip and Sheila, come next. The relationship is equally well observed, with long-standing power struggles exquisitely performed by Rachel Fielding and James Simmons. Philip’s affair with Ginny is the cause of her anxiety and a dilemma: she wants it over with and he doesn’t.

When the couples meet, confusion ensues and the comedy really gets going.

A slow start, then (and a pace Herford doesn’t rush), but one that builds to a farce that is original and quietly subversive. As an early Ayckbourn, from 1967, some social mores need to be recalled: confusion about Ginny’s illegitimacy isn’t going to get many laughs nowadays. But it’s still clear how bracing the satire is intended to be. And it should be noted that the two roles for women are excellent, their empathy for one another moving. Our sympathies firmly lie with the naive Greg and the long-suffering Sheila – a fact Cromwell and Fielding exploit well.

Ginny is complex and Philip a clear villain. With both roles, you might suggest Ayckbourn wants to question how funny a comedy about adultery should be? The dramatic irony, ridiculous coincidences and assumptions mount up. But these laughs have a queasy edge. After all, there are incestuous implications and an attempt at blackmail. There’s more to Relatively Speaking than meets the eye (or the genre), which makes the play fascinating as well as funny.


Until 9 October 2021

“By Jeeves” from The Shows Must Go On!

Far from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest hit, with a complicated history of rewrites, you might think this week’s digital offering – as usual aiming to raise money for charity – is merely a curio. But this PG Wodehouse-inspired piece, with a lot of talent behind it, makes for diverting entertainment, and Webber’s enthusiasm convinces, even if it isn’t contagious.

The book and, even better, the lyrics come from none other than Alan Ayckbourn. Of course, success depends on how much you like Wodehouse (and I don’t). But the crazy capers of the archetypal nice-but-dim toff and his superior butler are true to the spirit of the original. The story of mixed identities and confused romances is well explicated. And those lyrics are the height of sophistication and silliness – again, the perfect reflection of its source. Let’s just say that Wittgenstein is one of many unexpected rhymes.

There are problems. Ayckbourn also directs, and he does so far too slowly. It takes an age for things to get started and the pace doesn’t pick up enough. The songs are good but there aren’t enough of them and, on a couple of occasions, their inclusion seems almost random. The jokes, too many of which revolve around on the conceit of Bertie putting on a show, are too predictable.

The recording offered is based on the production from Pittsburgh’s Goodspeed Opera House and dates from 2001. Cleverly, the show’s small scale is reflected well. And the cast is top notch. John Scherer is appropriately bumbling as Wooster and sounds great. While Jeeves, who only has a speaking role, is performed by Martin Jarvis, who makes the whole thing look so effortless, he could be filming something else when he’s off stage.

The show’s stronger scenes go to the women, in the roles of Honoria Glossop, Madeline Bassett and Stiffy Byng, resulting in strong performances for Donna Lynne Champlin, Becky Watson and Emily Loesser. The men, you see, have the “combined IQ of 42” and, while this is supposed to be increasingly funny, it ends up tiresome. Maybe the show could have been even more knowing? When Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber let go it improves. A crazy finale provides a highlight: ‘It’s A Pig’ about, well, a housebreaking hog, is so odd I’m glad I’ve seen it… even if just the once.

Available on The Show Must Go On! YouTube channel until 10 May 2020

“Communicating Doors” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

If anyone can deal with that tricksy genre – the comedy thriller – it’s playwright Alan Ayckbourn. And as if combining chuckles with tension weren’t enough, this sci-fi story of murder and time travel challenges the cerebellum as well. As Lindsey Posner’s studied revival of the 1994 play shows, Ayckbourn comes as close as anyone can to cracking such an ambitious juggling act.

As you’d expect, there’s plenty of running around rooms, the twist being that it’s one hotel suite at three different times. And while doors aren’t slammed, creeping around between the decades, with the threat of bumping into a murderer, provides a couple of good jumps. There’s a dominatrix call girl for laughs and an officious security guard (nicely paced by Matthew Cottle). Be patient with the comedy, as it gets stronger in the second half.

It’s fitting that only the women in the story can use the eponymous portals. Ayckbourn has written three fine roles for women that mischievously outshine the play’s male characters. The ruthless Reece (Robert Portal) and his henchman Julian (David Bamber) manage to be threatening, with Bamber’s toupee and dastardly laugh deserving their own credit in the programme, but it’s the women – working out time travel and taking control – that make the show.

Rachel Tucker’s tart-with-a-heart manages to be believably frightened and feisty by turns. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Imogen Stubbs play Harold’s former wives, both murdered, with suitable flashback appeal. Stubbs is particularly strong at carrying the scenario, with a no-nonsense approach aiding the surprisingly credible edge of this entertaining evening.

Until 27 June 2015


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Relatively Speaking” at Wyndham’s Theatre

It’s always a pleasure to see one of our most loved actresses, Felicity Kendal, on stage. A superb comic performer, she really comes into her own in Lindsay Posner’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, which opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last night. The show confirms that when it comes to farce, Kendal is unmatched.

Relatively Speaking was Ayckbourn’s first West End hit, in 1967 – the summer of love – and it’s a comedy of mistaken identity surrounding adultery, with a battle of the sexes as a biting undercurrent. A young girl (Kara Tointon) about town travels from London to Buckinghamshire, pursued covertly by her boyfriend (Max Bennett), who aims to meet her parents, but instead encounters her lover and his suspicious wife. It’s a slim affair and all the more impressive for that: sleek and streamlined in construction, Posner puts his foot down and races through in under two hours.

Tointon and Bennett play the young sixties swingers convincingly, and are a pleasure to watch. Though Peter McKintosh’s designs are excellent, it’s a relief to report this production is nostalgia-free. Ayckbourn’s characters seem real and recognisable, regardless of the crazy situations they find themselves in. It’s a welcome take on this most mythic of decades, as well as being the key to great comedy.

The philandering Philip is played impeccably by Johnathon Coy. This golf-playing, sherry-spitting adulterer provides further insight into Ayckbourn’s changing times – and yet more laughs. There’s a joyousness in the writing that makes you feel Ayckbourn is having as much fun as the audience, with the hoops he jumps through to avoid resolution. The characters discover the truth while simultaneously pretending more and more.

No one plays this game more deliciously than Kendal. As the slightly dim, yet ‘perfect’ wife, she knows less than anyone, a position Kendal exploits to gain our sympathy. Kendal is a spry figure, full of energy, commanding attention with perfect timing. She could easily steal every scene, such is her charisma, but her disciplined performance is never overplayed. It’s only fitting that in the end Kendal gets the upper hand and the last of the evenings many laughs.

Until 31 August 2013


Photo by Nobby Clarke

Written 21 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Snake In The Grass” at the Print Room

For their second production at London’s new theatre, The Print Room, artistic directors Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters have chosen Alan Ayckbourn’s 2002 play Snake in the Grass. It’s a delightfully dark romp involving murder and a haunted tennis court, and the strength of this production confirms that London has an unmissable new venue on its cultural scene.

Bailey directs and deals with Ayckbourn’s black humour in a speedy, efficient fashion; she gets the laughs and spends time on the moving revelations that haunt the characters and give the play its real bite. With the audience sitting like spectators on either side of William Dudley’s spectral, derelict tennis court we are ready to watch a deadly game.

And the cast is equally compelling. Susan Wooldridge plays Annabel. Returning to the UK upon the death of her father, she has to deal with blackmail and an estranged sister who “accidentally” overdosed her father and pushed him down the stairs. Wooldridge is utterly convincing as a disappointed, yet practical woman. When she deals with her sister Miriam’s distress by waving a conciliatory handkerchief as if to shoo her away, you can tell that every movement in this performance is under control.

Sarah Woodward takes on messed-up Miriam with similar intelligence. Described as the gentlest of creatures but also criminally stupid, nobody really knows Miriam and Woodward plays her character mercurially. As for the blackmailer, Mossie Smith’s Alice is delicious to watch as she threatens the sisters and suggests their plans to move to Fulham be abandoned in favour of a caravan park!

Snake in the Grass isn’t just one for the die-hard Ayckbourn fans. With Bailey’s fantastic production getting the most out of the play, it’s game, set and match to The Print Room.

Until 5 March 2011


Photo by Sheila Burnett

Written 15 February 2011 for The London Magazine

“Season’s Greetings” at the National Theatre

Season’s Greetings is the National Theatre’s festive offering to its audience. It has a cast of shiny stars (Mark Gatiss, Katherine Parkinson and Catherine Tate) and might be thought of as well wrapped – designer Rae Smith’s set is impressive. Unfortunately, Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy of Christmas misery isn’t really the kind of gift you want to unwrap.

As a dysfunctional family come together for the festive holiday you can prepare yourself for laughs of recognition. Marianne Elliott’s direction gets the most out of Ayckbourn’s multi-vocal dexterity, but it is a touch laboured. The finale of Scene 3 may be hilarious, but it just takes too long to get there. Ayckbourn’s eye for detail delights some, and this piece has an additional nostalgic charm, but there’s a danger of having too many trimmings – just think about your Christmas dinner.

The cast of nine all get their moments in the spotlight and these are justly deserved but, as each marginally indulgent performance unfolds, the cumulative effect is forced. Nicola Walker is great at crying, Jenna Russell makes a tremendous stage drunk and Oliver Chris is superbly natural as the guest who sets the pulses of the families’ frustrated women racing. It is only Tate’s comic timing that is really spot-on. While Gatiss has great control, his character is so endearing that when the humour gets darker you feel a little guilty about laughing at him.

And the humour does get dark. Ayckbourn plays with the despair of the middle classes in a manner that can’t be described as fun – farce is often close to tragedy and the dark undertones here can take the smile off your face pretty sharpish. You will probably laugh – but it isn’t guaranteed. Nor will it leave you satisfied. It’s a Christmas present you don’t know what to do with afterwards.

Until 13 March 2011


Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 13 December 2010 for The London Magazine

“Absent Friends” at the Union Theatre

Producing Alan Ayckbourn’s modern middle-class drawing-room drama beneath a railway arch is a fairly brave act. But the Union Theatre in Southwark is a fringe venue not known for its timidity – with some excellent results. Thanks to impeccably sourced props from designer Holly Best we are back in the 70s in a well-appointed home and, with director Ben De Wynter in charge, ready for a deliciously poignant comedy of manners.

Absent Friends is the story of three couples preparing to meet with an old mate who has recently suffered bereavement. Giles Fagan plays the mourning Colin in a suitably perky manner, for Colin has learned lessons from his tragedy his luckier chums have missed out on, and consequently embraces life with a gratitude that makes the others look absent.

Chas. Early and Gillian McCafferty play Paul and Di, a couple on the edge, who fall apart on stage. McCafferty gives a brave, simply riveting performance while Early is slickly lecherous. His latest conquest joins them for tea and a lack of sympathy – Olivia Busby is the monosyllabic Evelyn and gets more laughs than you would have thought possible from a simple yes and no. To add to the embarrassment, Evelyn’s husband is present as well. Shaun Stone shows a talent not just to amuse but also to annoy with his nervous coin-jiggling curling toes. And finally there is Marge, on her own as hubbie Gordon is sick off stage. Fiona Gordon manages to let us all know it’s her character who is going to make the biggest gaffs – the comedy is no less sparkling when the promise comes to fruition.

De Wynter’s intelligent direction perfectly suits Ayckbourn’s subtlety. There are moments when this tea party becomes riotous, but Absent Friends isn’t a farce. Having couples argue over a eulogy just to score points against each other is painful, yet the humour also feels light. This production captures Ayckbourn’s gentle melancholy so perfectly it is strongly recommended. Make friends with the Union Theatre as soon as you can.

Until 13 November 2010


Written 1 November 2010 for The London Magazine