Updated: Sep 3, 2021
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough September 1 - 4 2021
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme September 7 - 18 2021
Filmed version available on line September 1 - 19 2021, two hours plus interval
Now and then...Bill Champion and Naomi Petersen
Looking largely on the domestic side of life as she has been lived during the two most important crises in living memory, the world’s most prolific dramatist - he’s 82 now and this, astonishingly, is his 85th play – contrasts and compares the social and moral attitudes of Britain in the Second World War with 2020 in lock down.
The first thing to say is that on this evidence Ayckbourn’s creative powers are absolutely undiminished. Secondly, The Girl Next Door is very typically Ayckbourn, with juxtaposed time shifts, an in-the-round split set of two kitchens and two gardens, a mischievous air of fantasy permeating the whole thing and everything overall aimed at providing clever, thought-provoking, heart-tugging entertainment. In other words, the Ayckbourn we know and love…
The pandemic is at its height when bored by the lock-down veteran out of work actor Rob, peering over the garden hedge, sees a woman, dressed in 1940s clothes, hanging out the washing. Deciding to investigate he strikes up a casual conversation, at first noticing her clothes and then the fact she is tending a Victory garden of beetroot and cabbages where there used to be roses.
Has lock-down affected Rob’s mental state? Is it 2020 or 1942? In fact, as Act One takes place on August 5 2020/1942 and Act Two the following afternoon, it’s both.
Ayckbourn was born in 1939 and says he well remembers sheltering from a bombing raid. Last year he was sheltering from Covid and his resulting play considers how aspects of society have changed between these two periods of national crisis. He explores all sorts of by-ways but with an overarching emphasis on the loss of present day certainty compared with the firmly held principles and sacrifices of the past. Attitudes to foreigners, the role of women and how far they have progressed in society are major themes.
It’s a totally terrific cast. SJT veteran Bill Champion inhabits Rob, trapped in lock-down with his older sister Alex (Alexandra Mathie), a sharp-tongued civil servant who works from home in her pajama bottoms. Naomi Petersen’s beautifully observed, heart-warming, ever-optimistic Lily, learns of a future that offers dishwashers and same-sex marriage. And then there’s Alf (Linford Johnson) her husband, returning on leave from the North African desert. But wasn’t he supposed to have been killed?
There are a few over-wordy passages and some of the theatrical in-jokes are a little too knowing but apart from that it’s pretty much perfect, one of the best-ever Ayckbourns. It’s also directed by him, with tender loving care.
Designer Kevin Jenkins and lighting designer Jason Taylor provide the atmospheric two-kitchens, two-gardens set. It was all filmed by Daniel Abell, who has not only captured Scarborough’s intimate in-the-round atmosphere but actually enhanced it by this skilful transposition. If you can’t get there this week, or to Newcastle next, don’t hesitate to invest on-line.