The conversation based on a misunderstanding is a well-used comedy device. You know the kind of thing, one person is talking about their dog while the other thinks he is talking about his wife. The genius of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1967 West End hit (his first) was that he managed to sustain this kind of gag for almost an entire play.
This comedy four-hander opens in a grubby London garret — love nest to twentysomethings Greg (Max Bennett) and Ginny (Kara Tointon). When the action moves to a sedate house in Buckinghamshire, it emerges that Ginny is trying to extricate herself from an affair with the older Philip (Jonathan Coy), who Greg mistakenly thinks is Ginny’s father. So when Greg turns up and asks Philip’s permission to marry his daughter, Philip is under the impression that Greg is asking his permission to marry his wife Sheila (Felicity Kendal), who Philip suspects is having her own affair. Got it? Never mind.
Ayckbourn’s structure quite brilliantly sustains misapprehensions for nearly two hours. Yet Lindsay Posner’s no more than solidly performed production is a comedy-free zone for much of this time. You can’t really blame the cast. As clever as Ayckbourn’s conceit is, the play is populated by characters immersed in attitudes that either date or diminish them.
Philip is your classic middle-aged chauvinist, Sheila is his meek housewife and although Ginny seems an independent-minded girl, in Greg she has hitched herself to an insecure whinger who wants to get married just a month after meeting her.
Interestingly, another revival playing in the West End — Peter Nichols’s Passion Play (1981) — is similarly brilliant in its construction and also features a man in late middle-age having an affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter. And that play is also almost fatally dated by the attitudes of its protagonists.
To be clear, this is not a call to ban plays with old fashioned opinions. It’s a call to rewrite them. Or at least revamp them. Why does a play have to be a Victorian romp before it can be honed into something that works as well now as it did originally? After all, when Richard Bean got his hands on Boucicault’s script for the National Theatre production of London Assurance a few years back, it was one of the funniest shows in London.
Bean not only made the play funnier — he took the opportunity to undermine its long-running antisemitic jokes.
And if Patrick Marber can polish a 100-year-old script such as Trelawny of the Wells as he successfully did for the Donmar recently, why can’t a script nearly half that age, such as Ayckbourn’s, receive similar treatment?