Alan Ayckbourn’s first major West End hit Relatively Speaking has just opened at The Mill At Sonning with a major revival which will transfer to London this spring. To mark this revival, the blog is looking at how the play came to fruition – which the playwright wrote about in his book The Crafty Art of Playmaking. The following is an abridged extract:
I had the tiniest idea for a situation wherein a young man would ask an older man whether he could marry his daughter. The twist was that the older man didn’t have a daughter.
Not much to go on, really, but something. Later, I developed the idea slightly. What if the daughter who wasn’t a daughter was in fact the older man’s mistress? Now we were beginning to have the makings of a rather promising situation.
Continuing on, what if the older man has a wife who knows nothing of this and what if the younger man were to meet the wife first and start talking about her non-existent daughter? And what if the daughter, appalled that the younger man was there at all, had to embrace the lie that the older man was her father, for fear that if she didn’t she would lose the younger man? And the wife had no idea what was going on. A plot was gradually falling together. A quite promising situation comedy of confused identity.
The decisions were reasonably simple. Since the younger man, Greg, needed to meet both the older man, Philip, and his wife, Sheila, it made sense to set the piece in the older couple’s house. All that was needed then was a contrivance to get the girl, Ginny, there as well. Perhaps she was there finally to break off her relationship with Philip? Feasible. There were all sorts of problems presented by that but it would do as an initial working plan.
Returning to the narrative problems, it was important that Greg arrived in the house convinced that it belonged to Ginny’s parents. How does that come about? Obviously she must have told him it does. Why should she do that? Because she’s coming down to break off her relationship with Philip and doesn’t want Greg to know where she’s going. It’s a spur-of-the-moment lie by her, to put the boyfriend off the scent.
Where does she tell him? We are going to need a pre-scene, a prologue before we can start the narrative rolling. With luck, this prologue could be used to serve more than one purpose.
But how does he get there, to the house? Answer: he follows her. But if he follows her, it means he must necessarily arrive second. And for the sake of the initial confusion of identity it’s important that he arrives first. In which case, it’s important that although she leaves first, so that he is convinced he’s following her, in fact she is delayed so he arrives first. (The plotting is getting rather complicated.)
But that means that Greg finds his way to the supposed parents’ house without following her. Which means he already knows the address. How does he know the address? Because he finds it somewhere, written down in her flat, that’s why. Which conveniently – wait for it – explains why Ginny tells him it’s her parents’ address. Which is not a very clever lie because why on earth should someone write down their parents’ address? Which makes him suspicious, which is why he follows her. It’s getting clearer.
Of course, when he arrives and there’s this sweet middle-aged woman, Sheila, he realises Ginny wasn’t lying after all and that this is her parents’ house.
A side effect of all this is that the location question has been solved. A two-set play: Ginny’s flat initially, then Philip and Sheila’s house.
Since the plot demands two sets, this prologue in the flat does give us a chance to establish the relationship between Greg and Ginny. Once the intricacies of the convoluted mistaken identity plot start uncoiling, as soon as first he and then she arrive at the parents, there’s going to be very little time or opportunity to establish much of a relationship. Events will be moving too fast.
So a two-scene first-act structure seemed to be presenting itself:
Establish boy-girl relationship.
Boy finds address.
Boy – establish suspicious nature – suspects the girl is up to something. Establish perhaps that she has a slightly murky past. Certainly murkier than his.
Girl explains it away by saying that it’s only her parents’ address.
Boy even more suspicious. Why has she written down her parents’ address?
Her taxi fails to arrive – she decides to walk to the station.
The taxi arrives.
Boy resolves to follow her.
He takes the taxi.
Note to self: explain in scene two how he catches the train, while she misses it.
Scene Two: the house, or perhaps the house exterior: less constricting than an interior and easier to lose characters who aren’t needed in certain scenes – they can either go into the house or wander off to other parts of the garden.
That’s the good thing about gardens. People just wander without much need to explain their actions. This plot was going to require quite a dextrous shuffling of characters.
Note: it’s a fine day.
And so on. This type of play requires intensely detailed plotting. It relies on coincidence, on things not being said or sometimes being said and misunderstood. Quite apart from the action itself, it requires that we know from second to second the attitude of each of the four characters to each other and what each perceives as being the situation. The wife, Sheila, for instance, will know practically nothing throughout. Greg will know a little. Ginny and Philip, the guilty parties, will know it all. And both will try desperately, in an uneasy alliance, to maintain the charade.
It seemed important, though, that by the end the tables would be turned.
Another decision was also being taken at this point, about time structure. The play could conveniently cover a tidy and brief span. Early morning through to early evening. Neat.
Anyway, the play, or at least the first half of it, was taking shape. But, please note, without a word of dialogue being written.
Essentially, though, with this type of ‘clockwork’ play – almost entirely plot-driven – once you’ve wound up the first act, the second act is to some extent easier as the spring is allowed to unwind again. Character in this instance is partly dictated by the requirements of the plot. Sheila, the wife, for instance, needed to be a vague, somewhat unworldly, apparently trusting woman – even if she was to get the last word. Greg, an innocent, impulsive young man – with a strong moral sense of right and wrong. Ginny, more difficult to establish, as she had to be sleeping around with older men and two-timing our young hero whilst still retaining our sympathy. Going to need an actress with a great deal of charm. (Charm is very difficult to write).
Also, note to self: put her through it a bit as all her chickens come home to roost. The audience may then be prepared to forgive her if she is seen to suffer (just a little bit) for her misdemeanours.
Likewise with Philip, her ex-lover. Important to make him quite a sympathetic bumbler. (Though that’s probably not how he sees himself.) Certainly not a suave, moustache-twirling seducer. He must also retain a certain sympathy – so also cause him a bit of angst.
Because of its very constructional artifice, Relatively Speaking, although always billed as a light comedy, is technically closer to farce – the hardest type of play to write. For some reason, at that time in the 1960s producers considered farce to be a little downmarket, so Relatively Speaking was accorded the light-comedy certificate.
This abridged extract is taken from Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking (Faber, 2004) which is available from Amazon here and all good book shops.
Relatively Speaking, directed by Robin Herford, can be seen at The Mill At Sonning until 18 April after which it transfers to the Jermyn Street Theatre, London, from 21 April – 16 May. Further details can be found here (Mill At Sonning) and here (Jermyn Street Theatre).
You can find out more about Relatively Speaking and its history at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website in the Relatively Speaking section here.
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