Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

phil and sheila

Sean Mulkeen catches up on the news while wife Sheila, played by Eliza Harris, is fairly fizzing with Sunday morning enthusiasm. Pictures Alastair Barnsley

Relatively Speaking

Highbury Theatre Centre


We all do it, that little, sometimes it's even huge, white lie to spare feelings and avoid hurt, and to maintain that lie, then sometimes more lies are piled on with the truth drowning under a tsunami of good intentions.

So, we open in Ginny’s tiny flat where she is living with her boyfriend Greg in a relationship with a history of all of a month where loves sweet bloom has started to fade, replaced by loves sweet hint of suspicion lurking behind the rather small, shared bed.

Ginny, played by Amarpreet Marwaha, is the more experienced of our lovebirds when it comes to all things carnal while Greg, played by James Blackburn, is somewhat naive when it comes to the niceties of nooky – and much else it seems.

He finds Ginny’s endless deliveries of flowers and regular deliveries of gifts somewhat out of the ordinary, silent phone calls a bit strange, and even finding a pair of men’s slippers under the bed raises little more than curiosity. Ginny’s explanations have all the ring of truth of a politician’s promise and anyone who has ever had a relationship lasting beyond an hour can see through them . . . apart from Greg who is either as innocent as a new born babe and cannot believe Ginny could lie to him or cheat, or, a simpler explanation, he could just be congenitally thick.

Ginny is rushing to leave to visit her parents – going alone with an emphatic no you can’t go as well, Greg.

As this is in the scene setting portion of the play, we can speed it along a little. It’s not her parents she is off to, no relation at all in fact, it is Philip, played by Sean Mulkeen, her ex-boss and older lover, who she is visiting to break off a relationship she has already tried to end, hence his desperate deliveries of flowers and gifts.


Amarpreet Marwaha as Ginny explaining to Philip the concept of becoming an ex

That could have been the end of it. Philip left to make do with just his wife, Ginny goes back to Greg and they all live happily, well at least, all live ever after. End of play. Except Greg, dim, trusting(ish) Greg, has an idea; why not sneak down to Ginny’s parents, even though told not to, and introduce himself as their prospective son-in-law. Or, as a more conventional way of looking at it, lob a great big spanner in the works.

By a quirk of Britain’s world leading railway system, he sets off after Ginny but arrives before her, introducing himself to her “parents” who haven’t the foggiest who he is or what he is wittering on about.

The initial scene setting is a little pedestrian but once we move from dingy flat to middle class suburbia the play starts to sparkle with more misunderstandings than characters as everyone thinks everyone is someone else or pretending to be someone else, or indeed, they are someone else, and then there is a romantic affair flying around with no one actually on board.

Eliza Harris is a delight as Philip’s wife Sheila who seems in a permanent state of benign bewilderment – she, of course, being the only one with absolutely no clue as to what is going on . . . well to start off with that is.

Then there is Philip who has lost his hoe, in case you are interested, and who gets not so much the wrong end of the stick as an entirely different stick completely, creating yet more confusion.

The play, celebrating its 58th birthday this year, was Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s first West End success, and is lighter and wittier than his somewhat darker later plays. It sows the seeds of Ayckbourn’s bread and butter targets of middle class social mores and relationships. Rather than deal with manners and conventions though, this creates its chaos through simple misunderstandings with Greg creating a world that does not exist and Ginny arriving with her alternative version.


Philip and Sheila with James Blackburn's Greg, their prospective son-in-law for a daughter they don't actually have

Sheila, dear old bewildered Sheila, is the only one with a loose grasp of reality. Philip, with nooky on the way out, is bedevilled by fantasy, Greg has in-laws who are more out-laws and Ginny, who remember started all of this with a white lie, is trying to keep as many balls in the air as she can.

The play was first performed in Scarborough in 1965 and appeared in the West End two years later and is set at that time, so a tick for whoever was responsible for obtaining a vintage copy of The Sunday Times for Philip to read. It was too early for the period but no matter, it gave the immediate visual idea that we were not in the present.

Not that the play appears or feels dated in any way. It could quite happily have been set last week and the lines and situations would have seemed just as fresh. Relationships, boy meets girl and all that, has been pretty standard since the days of fig leaves and apples.

Malcolm Robertshaw has designed a clever split stage set, with the split across rather than down the stage with the flat at the rear. It's a little cramped back there but that is a scene that depends on dialogue rather than sweeping action. With both Greg and Ginny off to their fateful visit the action moves to Philip and Sheila's sunny terrace with an ingenious, stage wide, garden fence sliding on to leave the rear stage in darkness behind the vision of a suburban middle class Sunday morning.

Ayckbourn does well to get so much confusion and humour, all with a sort of strangely compelling logic, with just two couples and a single misunderstanding which multiplies like a rampant virus.

The result is a witty, amusing, at times laugh out loud comedy about relationships, white lies that run amok and ordinary people . . . sort of like us.

Philip never does find his hoe, incidentally, and as for the slippers . . . you’ll need a ticket to know their secret . . .  

Directed by Sandra Haynes the cast will be relatively speaking to 23-09-23.

Roger Clarke


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