Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 9 October 2021
We always knew that among the first sproutings of recovery would be a few Alan Ayckbourns, popping up as welcome as snowdrops. I am always fond of this early one, with its deadly-accurate eye on the British qualities of embarrassed, pained civility and insane reluctance to ask the straight and obvious question.
The old Noel Coward congratulated the (astonished) young Ayckbourn on it, and I can see why. The old hand saw that someone had come along who enjoyed wordplay and cross-purposes but, unlike him, had focused a pitiless eye on a rising generation, looser in convention and more middling in class than his characters. It was, by the way, the first time that an ordinary unmarried couple were depicted on the West End stage as fresh out of bed (and not remotely guilty about it).
The play last surfaced in the West End in a lush production starring Felicity Kendal, with if I remember correctly some real growing flowers on the older couple’s patio. So it was irresistible to see how it feels up close in this tiny underground theatre. Good, is the answer. And one can trust Jermynite stage management not to be afraid of turning a 1960s studentish bedroom full of posters into a genteel Buckinghamshire terrace (one bed equals two benches and whoomp! Down comes a new backcloth, very neat.
You may know the set up? A young couple – here a naively puppyish Christopher Bonwell and Lianne Harvey, suitably minxier and more experienced – plan to marry. In a fit of gentlemanliness (retro even for 1965) he is calling on her parents, where she said she was heading, to “ask for her hand”. Ginny being less retro in her ways, the country house actually belongs to Philip, the lover she is trying to dump, and his innocent wife.
And so the dance progresses, a step-perfect quadrile between the two innocents and the two deceivers, its mood rising to confused anger and subsiding to misguided understanding. With sherry and luncheon and gardening.
James Simmons as Philip is bliss: a middle-aged alpha male with all the roguery and misplaced self-confidence of the species, all the conviction that he deserves both cosy wife and young girlfriend, yet beneath that, in body language and wonderful moments of panic, the necessary Ayckbournian undercurrent of potential real pain, caused and (rather less) felt by him.
Rachel Fielding is a perfect foil, every inch the hostess, without the skittishness Kendal gave it but getting calmer and kinder as every twist of misunderstanding tightens around the conversations. Unlike Coward Ayckbourn doesn’t do epigrams: instead he gives her sweetly hilarious worries about sunstroke and the need to wear a hat in the garden. And unlike almost any other playwright, he can make the plot turn suddenly and sourly on the lining colour of a bedroom-slipper..
. The duologue of the two men in particular is immaculate, Bonwell dreadfully indignant at this supposed future father-in-law, Simmons affrontedly pompous. The edge of pain in Harvey’s Ginny – who after all is possibly about to lose her fiancé any imnute – is shown in every line. In fact the intimacy of the Jermyn is a plus: as clearly as on TV you see every twitch of an eyebrow, every pained smile of mis understanding, the fact that the young man is actually sweating. Gorgeous.
Director Robin Herford is a veteran of Ayckbourn’s own SJT at Scarborough, and his task is to ensure that every beat of comic bewilderment hits home. It does. And you’re right up close to it all, a neighbour in that Buckinghamshire garden.
Box office jermynstreettheatre.co.uk To 9 Oct
rating five happy mice