Relatively Speaking, by Alan Ayckbourn | Directed by Mark Kilmurry

Ensemble Theatre (http://ensemble.com.au) | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 14 January

Regular readers of my reviews may have noticed that a constant source of irritation is having an actor on stage, in character, while the audience shuffles into their seats. Often they are doing nothing to foreshadow the themes of the play, nor are they providing valuable information about their character. It’s no longer anything unusual and innovative, and just makes me feel uncomfortable for the actor.

So, a thank you, to Director Mark Kilmurry, for shaking this up. That’s all I’m saying.

Lights up.

It’s 1965. The swinging 60s in London.

Ginny and Greg are casually cohabitating and madly in love. As Ginny prepares to visit her parents (so she claims), Greg finds clues that she may not be the most faithful of lovers and potential fiancées. He determines to secretly follow and ask her father for her hand in marriage. He arrives at the country address first and thrusts himself into the lives of a middle-aged couple, Philip and Sheila, who are definitely not Ginny’s parents.

What ensues is a relatively ribald comedy of mistaken identity that would do the Bard proud and has the audience in constant fits of laughter. The writing is tight and punchy — this is Alan Ayckbourn, after all. He has woven an intricate plot of misunderstandings that typically satirises middle-class manners. Just when you don’t think it could get any worse, it does! It’s only by quick thinking that the characters are able to extricate themselves from each socially awkward minefield.

Ginny (Emma Palmer) and Greg (Jonny Hawkins) bring the opening scene to cartoonish life – think Betty Boop and Dudley Do Right – and set the show’s relentless pace with their snappy delivery of dialogue and energetic physical antics.

Special mention must be made of their deft handling of the many props strewn about the stage. The show has been running for almost two weeks and in that time Palmer and Hawkins have grown comfortable with all they have to manage. Stage business with props is deceptively difficult, and these actors have the added degree of difficulty (with pike!) of dealing with so many, as well as super-slick and fast-paced dialogue, tight comedy timing and frenetic blocking.

I was, quite frankly, in awe of how well they did.

Kudos to designer Hugh O’Connor for faithfully recreating a typical busy young woman’s bedroom. It transported me back to a time BC (Before Children) when cleaning and tidying were definitely not high on my list of priorities. In fact, it lagged a sad last behind working, partying, road trips and brunches.

It wasn’t just Palmer and Hawkins who managed the set dressing. I have never in all my theatre experience seen a scene change applauded. All four actors worked in choreographed sequence to completely transform the set from Ginny’s overly cluttered bedroom to Philip and Sheila’s country garden, and the applause was well deserved.

Along with the scene change came a concomitant change in pace. Philip (David Whitney) and Sheila (Tracy Mann) masterfully cut through the freneticism of the first scene with their slower-paced wry delivery of a couple at the other end of the relationship spectrum.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Tracy Mann’s since Sweet and Sour back in the 80s. So I may be a little biased, but her performance as Sheila, the put-upon wall flower of a wife with more intelligence than she’s given credit for, is pitch perfect.

A hugely fun show with magnificently professional cast. Well worth seeing for a light-hearted, fun night out.

Above: David Whitney and Tracy Mann. Below: Emma Palmer and Jonny Hawkins. Images: Clare Hawley.