Left – Emma Palmer and Jonny Hawkins. Cover – Jonny Hawkins. Photos – Clare Hawley
Having only recently reviewed the Sydney Theatre Company’s raucous French farce A Flea in Her Ear, attending the Ensemble’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking is a fascinating study of contrasts. While perhaps not technically a farce per se, or at any rate certainly not an example of High Farce, it hinges on many of the same farcical principles of mistaken identity and unlikely contrivances to fuel this far more sedate and British comedy of manners and errors.
In fact, this production is in many regards the inverse of its larger mainstage counterpart. Where the STC show sports a large cast, this is a tight four-hander, while the French play hinges on a labyrinthine plot, this English comedy has an extremely simple premise. And where Feydeau’s play is replete with outrageous pratfalls and choreographed sight gags, Ayckbourn’s humour is almost entirely reliant on the verbal trickery and the aplomb with which the actors convey its constantly unspoken subtext. What both shows have in common, however, are rather ingenious production designs that each allow for a spectacularly efficient and total change of scenery before the audience’s very eyes, and feature superbly well-balanced, hilarious performances from their talented respective casts. Also both, of course, share the perennial farcical theme of infidelity and the absurd lengths the characters will go to in the hopes of either uncovering such dalliances or not being found out, digging themselves into ever deeper holes in the process as confusion and misapprehension run riot.
Similar to the more elaborate French example, it feels unkind to the production to reveal too much about the plot of this play, and even more so here, as its relatively simpler narrative hinges on only one or two main twists, and the best way to enjoy this comedy to its fullest is to go in as blind as possible. It may seem somewhat of a slow-burn at first, as performing this 1967 play in its original setting renders it something of a period piece, but once the key thrust of the premise clicks into place in the second scene, things really start to cook. The period setting is perhaps a slightly debatable decision for the production, as it adds very little other than showcasing some rather striking vintage undergarments. Veteran Ensemble director Mark Kilmurry may have felt the gender and sexual politics could feel dated in today’s more pluralistic and emancipated climate, although I would argue that dependent housewives, inequitable workplace affairs, and people outraged by infidelity are hardly relics of a bygone era. But far be it from me to argue for arbitrary modernisation, as the splash of retro colour certainly doesn’t detract from the play whatsoever, and I tire of the popular practice of updating settings purely through fear of losing “relevance”.
Once the play takes off towards the later half of the first act, the deliciously awkward comedy of misunderstandings sets in and doesn’t let up. Jonny Hawkins is very funny as Greg, the slightly eccentric young “straight man” who has unexpectedly proposed to his fairly new girlfriend Ginny (Emma Palmer), and then rather impetuously yet innocently caught a train to introduce himself to her affluent parents at their country house. But when he meets Philip (David Whitney) and Sheila (Tracy Mann), the older couple are not what he expects… and vice-versa. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.
Whitney and Mann are tremendous as a posh, seemingly genteel pair, ostensibly interested only in gardening, golf and tea, yet bristling beneath the surface are all manner of secrets, resentments and suspicions. Their veneer of disinterested cordiality begins to crack early on, and soon teeters towards uproarious collapse. Whitney in particular is brilliant as the tightly-coiled patriarch Philip, his stereotypical English reserve at odds with his blustering temper and broiling appetites. He displays a wonderful range of responses from incredulous to pained, outraged, crestfallen and menacingly vindictive, and in many moments utterly steals the show.
Mann is far more understated as his wife Sheila, the character who remains in the dark for the longest, blithely sailing through much of the confusion without initially becoming too perturbed. In some respects she is more the “straight man” in her performance than is Hawkins, who fulfills that function more by his even more oblivious placement in the plot. The actor with the least stage-time is Palmer, despite her role being in many respects the lynchpin of the narrative, and the central object of most of the farcical misapprehensions. She nevertheless holds her own comedically and does an admirable job with her lesser role, conveying the sheer panic and almost existential quandary when she realises the situation she has belatedly stumbled into. Being the one character who knows the truth from all sides, she has to try and frantically unravel the false assumptions and mistaken identities before anyone gets wise enough to cause disaster.
Relatively Speaking may not be the outrageous blockbuster of other farcical period comedies, yet it is a highly entertaining and conventionally “well-made” play, by the playwright’s own admission. To those looking for a well-oiled character piece with excellent performances and lots of laughs in an intimate venue, this production comes well recommended.
Ensemble Theatre presents
by Alan Ayckbourn
Director Mark Kilmurry
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW, 2061
Dates: 30 November 2016 – 14 January 2017
Tickets: $66 – $73
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 | www.ensemble.com.au