Relatively Speaking

By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Scott Edmiston
At the New Rep Theatre
Newton, MA (617) 332-1646 Closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Relatively speaking, Alan Ayckbourn's "Relatively Speaking" is not a first rate farce. The script takes a while to get off the ground, and limited as it is to only four characters it never rises to the heights of sublime door-slamming silliness that is the standard for the very best in this line. But "Relatively Speaking" aims for a kind of middle ground of amusement, and hits that so well that it has been a small-theatre staple ever since its premiere. Judging from Scott Edmiston's current production at Newton's New Rep, the play is likely to go on generating laughter for decades to come.

The lights come up on the drearily "cute" bedroom of Ginny's London flat, circa 1959, where Greg (Nathaniel Eaton) has spent the night with her in amorous embraces. In a jumble of pratfalls and exposition we learn that while Ginny (Rebecca Pipkin) is sexually experienced, this is Greg's first love affair. After one month of bliss, Greg is eager to go to the altar and seal the relationship in marriage. Ginny, although she is making reassuring noises, doesn't seem to be so sure. In fact, the flat is full of signs that Ginny has either recently broken off or is about to begin another affair, one with a man of means: bouquets of flowers are all over, her drawers are stuffed with satin-wrapped boxes of chocolate, and there is a pair of expensive men's slippers, size ten, under her bed.

Ginny has explanations, however bizarre, for all this, and for the ringing phone that goes dead when Greg answers, and for the sudden dash into the suburbs she is taking -- to visit her parents, she claims, at "The Willows". Ginny sets off, but Greg, propelled by ardor and jealousy, takes off right behind her, determined to track down Ginny's parents and convince them that he is a man fit to be given Ginny's hand in marriage.

So far this has all been a bit hard to take. The flat is, if anything, worse than the depressing rooms we've been shut into this endless New England winter. Eaton's Greg and Pipkin's Ginny, although they could under other circumstances be attractive young people, are locked into an annoying set of British mannerisms. Greg is a perfect twit of an overgrown schoolboy, all knees and elbows and goofy grin. Ginny's creamy English Rose perfection could easily be the outer covering of a man-eating monster: certainly Pipkin has the voice for it, a kind of clipped metallic chirp that makes her declarations of affection and her baroque account of how the alien slippers got under her bed equally implausible.

The we segue into the next scene and a miracle happens. Designer Janie Fliegal waves her magic wand, and the tacky bed-sitter blossoms into a bower, a glorious English country garden, with climbing roses pink and white, flocks of phlox, planters burgeoning with scarlet impatience, all of it framed by the graceful fronds of "the willows". Applause breaks out in the auditorium. It has been a long hard winter: surely the play will live up to this lovely set now, lift us out of our winter grumps and into jollity.

The ever-excellent Lynda Robinson makes her entrance as Sheila in a pale green striped and crinolined shirtwaist, with a creamy beige twinset cardigan clipped on by a studded sweater guard, and sits herself primly at the linen-draped table on her sun-washed terrace to pour tea out of a silver pot for her rumpled and testy husband, Philip. All is right with the world. Even though "The Willows" is revealed to belong to Ginny's boss, Philip the- married -man with whom she has been carrying on an affair, and even though Philip's wife Sheila is skipping church this particular Sunday morning--- which means that the imminent arrival of Ginny and Greg on this peaceful scene threatens to turn it into an emotional minefield--- Robinson's Sheila will be equal to anything. Unexpected guests, mistaken identities, adulterous double-cross: she will greet every incomprehensible turn with unflappable aplomb. Sheila will see that everyone muddles through.

Greg arrives before Ginny, because Ginny has managed to miss her train, and he introduces himself to Sheila under the impression that she can be enlisted as an ally against the enmity of Ginny's dragon of a Dad, who is sure to disapprove of Greg as a possible husband for his daughter. Sheila tactfully withdraws so that Greg can tackle Philip on his mysterious difficult business Greg goes about this in such a defensive way that Philip gets the impression that Greg is Sheila's lover and that he plans to marry her, rather than Ginny. About the time that misunderstanding is cleared up, Ginny walks in.

Barry Press does some very odd things as Philip, twitchings and tripletakes and little dance-like perturbations, but these all come, in time, to seem part of the character. Philip is apparently so much a prisoner of British reserve that he has no consistent shape to his emotional reactions. He builds up steam and then lets it out in panicked spurts, like the valve of a pressure cooker. Angry, childish, rash, sly, jealous, effete--- each gambit makes a fearful rattle and hiss, but the effect is to ward off any real explosions.

The youngsters improve immeasurably after the first scene -- as does Ayckbourn's writing. Ginny, freed by minimal dialogue from her chalk on the blackboard accent and her repugnant position as principal liar, turns into a rather sympathetic young woman. Pipkin mobile face is sensitive to every threat of exposure. Greg's sheer nervous cluelessness is charming rather than irritating once Eaton stops blundering around Ginny's bedroom and is set loose instead on the gentry in their garden. After a while it seems as if the characters and the audience are ready to collude in any scheme that will permit poor Greg to stay in his state of blissful oblivion. There are plenty of nasty undercurrents as the couples cope and grope toward a satisfactory conclusion, but the nastiness is kept far enough under for the conclusion to be quite satisfactory, thank you.

How delightful to discover from the theatre's program that Ayckbourn knew right from the start of this early play exactly what he was about. Ayckbourn is quoted as saying he wanted to write, as his friend Stephen Joseph who directed their theatre requested, "a play which would make people laugh when their summer holidays were spoiled by the rain and they came into the theatre to get dry before trudging back to their landladies. This seemed to me as worthwhile a reason for writing a play as any." And so it is--relatively speaking.