Chris Eldon Lee reviews “The Girl Next Door” by Alan Ayckbourn, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 18th September.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to spoil anything. It’s just that the latest theatrical device from this ever inventive and craftiest of playwrights comes right at the end. After a tortuous time-travelling storyline, the central character sits down to read a letter that explains to his satisfaction what finally happened. It clearly gives him contentment and closure.
The novelty of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play, however, is that we, the audience, never learn what the letter says. We’re used to having to be imaginative in his presence, of course … but this is a brave new departure. The playwright really leaves us guessing. It’s an unsettling conclusion to a play about unsettling times. Or, should I say, two unsettling times.
The clue is the mangle. In another of his classic suburban settings, we see the kitchen and garden of two neighbouring London houses. One kitchen is fully equipped with dishwasher and microwave. The other has a mangle, an aged gas stove and a teapot with a retro tea cosy.
In the first house lives Rob, a furloughed actor, famous on TV for his heroic role in the wartime drama National Fire Service, who is now terminally bored with watching box sets. He shares his house with his big sister Alex who normally works at No 11 Downing Street but, trapped by the familiar strictures, is reduced to managing the nation’s budget on Zoom. In one of many jokey pandemic scenarios, we see her dressed for business from the waist up … but reduced to pyjama bottoms below.
Both are stressed by lockdown life. But then lothario Rob spots the girl next door hanging out the washing. He visits Lily’s ‘Dig For Victory’ garden and gets on famously until his chat up is interrupted by an air raid. He is living through a pandemic. She is living through the 1942 Blitz. It’s the same August day, 78 years apart.
Having been in a couple of Doctor Who episodes, Rob is familiar with the concept of time/space anomalies … but now he’s living in one.
It’s a brilliant set up which unfolds into one of Ayckbourn’s most enjoyable plays. In it he explores the social mores of the two times, the SciFi dangers of changing the future and has great fun making digs about labour-saving 21st century life. “I couldn’t live with your kitchen,” says Lily. “What would I do all day?”
It’s a play punctuated with plenty of ‘sinking in silences’ as Rob and Lily try to work out what is going on. Rob, as an actor, is used to convincing people…but this is way beyond his powers.
As you might imagine with a direct Scarborough transfer the acting is top notch. Bill Champion is his usual superb self, doing a wonderful line in utter bewilderment. Naomi Petersen is a cheeky, chirpy cockney, the epitome of ‘carrying on’ despite everything. She doesn’t have our luxury of feeling sorry for ourselves. They are excellently supported by Alexandra Mathie and Linford Johnson who give Ayckbourn the ammunition he needs to spin quirky subplots, troubling dilemmas and a breath catching surprise opening to the second half. No one writes a better interval.
It’s jolly unfair that a man who has created 80 plays across 6 decades should still be coming up with a master-piece every year… even if, this time, he relies upon us to finish his story for him.