Relatively Speaking

Reviewed by Carolyn Watts


The Ensemble Theatre has begun this holiday season with the runaway hit that announced Alan Ayckbourn’s success as a playwright. 


‘Relatively Speaking’ is a comedy built on confusions, compounded by untruths and infidelities, within and around a ‘respectable’ British marriage.


Set in the swinging sixties, the play takes place in a messy London flat and in the garden of a Buckinghamshire home.


The flat belongs to Ginny (Emma Palmer) and it is her current squeeze, Greg (Jonny Hawkins), who triggers the run of absurdities arising from the half-truths and lies already present in their one-month-old relationship.


Greg’s credulous acceptance of Ginny’s story that she is going to visit her parents in the country, while she is really going to end things with her older lover, sets the comedy roller-coaster on its hilarious course. 


Despite Ginny’s flat being awash with bouquets of flowers and boxes of candy, the unsophisticated Greg suspends his suspicion they might be from another beau; then decides to surprise Ginny by visiting her parents himself to ask their blessing for the relationship.


Awkwardness, mix-ups and muddles follow Greg’s naivety as he arrives ahead of Ginny, mistakes her older lover, Philip (David Whitney) for her father—and promptly asks permission to marry his daughter.


Meanwhile, Philip’s wife Sheila (Tracy Mann) is convinced her husband is having an affair but has no idea with whom, and swings and roundabouts abound as the older couple play a well-worn game of pretending to be pretending about each other’s suspected infidelity.


As the philandering husband, Whitney is a master of understatement. From fear of exposure to lustful blackmail, this actor’s fluent facial gestures enhance the scripted misperceptions. 


Equally understated is the performance of Tracy Mann. As Philip’s long-suffering, much cheated-on, wife, Mann moves effortlessly between benign misunderstanding and focussed artifice, ultimately proving to be the cat in their cat-and-mouse marriage.


The eloquence and timing of all the cast is first rate and Greg, the lynchpin who holds together the unravelling saga, is played with a lightness that is both believable and refreshing…keep an eye out for the frilly apron. 


Relatively Speaking was born in the height of the sexual revolution, before the big questions on the costs of sexual freedom. The shallowness of relationships, their misfortunes and distress, are the prescient offering of this play whose director, Mark Kilmurry has handled expertly. Within minutes, the opening night audience’ laughter was continuous and real enough to be canned. 


Add this treat to your summer calendar! 


Photos by Clare Hawley