Of all the regional theatres that has been virtually unvisitable over the last year or so the one I most regret not being able to get to is the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Not just because of the many happy memories I have of the building but also because it has almost exclusively premiered every single one of Alan Ayckbourn’s 85 plays across six decades. And then I discovered I could visit it virtually (in the other sense of the word) by grabbing a ticket for that very 85th play and settling down at home. The piece in question is The Girl Next Door which harks back to earlier plays such as Whenever, Miss Yesterday, Surprises and especially Communicating Doors in its central conceit of time travel.
The hedge that separates the gardens of 15 and 17 Maple Street in Canonbury, London is rather special because by crossing between one side and the other you might find yourself in much the same place but at radically different times. On one side of the divide, it is summer 2020; Covid-19 is very much in evidence along with all the social restrictions that this implies. And on the other it is summer 1942 and, as the saying goes, there’s a war on.
Temporarily forcibly retired actor Rob notices that things next door seem somewhat out of kilter and sets out to investigate. He meets Lily, the girl of the title, and despite a huge age gap (36 years in one sense but 78 years in another) a bond starts to form especially when they share a bottle of brandy. But he has one big advantage; he can look into Lily’s future via the internet and faces a dilemma as to what he should or shouldn’t reveal. Lily, of course, has never heard of the internet, or TV, or a microwave or indeed any of the rest of the contents of Rob’s kitchen which she visits with a sense of wonder and even fear. Rob is slightly more at home back at her place because he has played a fireman in the NFS in a TV drama set during the Second World War and he also has theories on time travel garnered from playing minor roles in Doctor Who and Star Trek.
This lockdown/blackout love story contains a number of twists and turns and works its way to a pleasing narrative conclusion which beautifully makes use of some earlier seeded clues. And Ayckbourn has great fun along the way comparing and contrasting the social norms and values of the two eras (old fashioned sacrifice against modern day whinging) even finding time to make some telling points about gender, race and sexual roles in the two crisis torn societies which are portrayed. Some of this is played out via the introduction of two other characters into the mix.
Alex, Rob’s older sister has found herself trapped into lockdown living with a brother of whom she despairs and Alfie, Lily’s soldier husband for whom fate has decreed a sad end. The four intermingle and there’s a really telling scene towards the start of the second half between the two women which demonstrates just how far things have moved on while still staying very much the same.
A crack team of acting talent has been assembled with long term regular Ayckbourn performers Bill Champion and Alexandra Mathie winningly taking on the modern day older couple and new face Linford Johnson as Alfie (although his role seems a little underdeveloped). But it is Naomi Petersen (previously seen in four roles in Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present) who really impresses. Exuding a naturally sweet loveliness she makes the character one of steely determination underneath this exterior and one who is going to get through the war and be reunited with her husband and two evacuated children. Does Rob try and take advantage of the situation? Given what we learn of his two failed marriages and a string of slightly tawdry “conquests” I think on balance he probably does see an opportunity and tries to capitalise even while he fools himself that he’s doing things for altruistic reasons – shades of Norman in those famous Conquests.
The play benefits from a stunningly realistic set (or sets given the dual design which goes on) from Kevin Jenkins. The 2000s kitchen is all clean lines and sterile atmosphere: “We can’t drink in here”, declares Lily. “It would be like drinking in an operating theatre”. Meanwhile 1942’s example is warm and welcoming despite the mangle in the corner, the very basic cooker and the permanently leaky tap. There is also a beautifully realised “dig for victory” garden complete with veg patch. I won’t spoil the last ten minutes of the plot by revealing here what happens to it all but a mini coup de théâtre makes for a punchy denouement. Jason Taylor’s lighting sometimes has to encompass sunshine in one area while its raining in the other. It is never less than convincing and there’s a lovely joke when Rob and Alex’s motion activated security lights are mistaken for enemy searchlights. Similarly, the sound contributes very convincingly to the reality of the two eras. Ayckbourn himself (with Paul Stear) is responsible; and was that him playing the ARP warden?
You’ve got to be some sort of genius to still be turning out quality material like this at the age of 82 – and that’s not to mention the other three plays Ayckbourn wrote during lockdown which await production and the two audio dramas he also put out. Forthrightly outspoken about the iniquities of filmed drama (and to some extent I would agree) I really hope this won’t be a one off and that we can look forward to further examples from the jewel of the northeast which is the SJT. I notice they are putting on Home, I’m Darling soon. I managed to miss this when it was on in London; so, pretty please???