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A beautiful tale of past and present uncertainties

The Girl Next Door Written and Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Review by David Bithell for Radio Kiln

We arrived at the theatre in what was probably one of the hottest September nights recorded for a long time. It was great to be greeted by Kay from the marketing team with our tickets as it had been around 18 months since we last saw her.

On to the review. We entered the auditorium and we were met with a great set design by the fantastic Kevin Jenkins, and it was 2 properties, one that appeared to be old, and one that was modern.

This was Alan Ayckbourn’s 85 play. He has always been a mischievous writer and director and he didn’t disappoint with his latest offering. Act 1 was 5th August 2020 and 1942, Act 2 was the following afternoon.

The kitchen and garden next door to Rob’s house have swung back to 1942 and its immediately evident the dialogue during the play is going to be between Rob and “the girl next door”, Lily. As the first act rolls on, you understand the pressure T.V actor Rob is under during the pandemic, as he is mainly at the kitchen table staring, pondering what is happening with the outside world, stuck at home, out of work and left to isolate with his sister Alex. It is during these new, daily routines that he spots his (new) neighbour, the attractive Lily who catches his eye, and the story unfolds.

A not too surprising event occurs when Lily’s husband, Alf, returning on leave from North Africa, finds Lily and Rob in a clinch for a dramatic end of Act 1 scene. The dialogue prior to the end of the first act implies that Lily’s husband Alf has been killed, but the presence of his name in the programme suggests this is not the case.

In The Girl Next Door you can see the clever joins, the witty and entertaining script that comes hand in hand with an Alan Ayckbourn play. This aside, we get to see a love story unfold (though not the one we expect) on the strength of a short last scene craftfully played by Bill Champion.

If the play explores all sorts of paths during the 2 hours, the basic plot is simplicity itself, and, for a play with an historical versions of events, its remarkably topical and current.

Rob Hathaway is 60 years old, frustrated at life, with two failed marriages but expresses his womanising ways are behind him. After his proclaimed heroic role as George “Tiger” Jennings was written out of a World War II fire service drama on television, and to make matters worse, lockdown has forced his “civil servant” sister, Alex, to isolate with him.

The thoughts and opinions to foreigners and, especially, the role of women are explored subtly and sensitively alongside such witty quips as having to pretend to Alf that Beck’s Beer comes from Bexhill-on-Sea not Germany. Lily and Alf are taken aback that Alex is married to another woman, but never think to say that it’s impossible and the vexed point of time-travellers changing events is aired, but not explored. However, Ayckbourn’s nod to the “old fashioned values” of 1940s dialogue is faultless.

As Lily, Naomi Petersen is fantastic, her cheerful positive attitude in the face of the adversity at that time is a perfect re-creation of a 1940s ideal, it scratches the surface but we don’t get to see at an emotional in depth level. Bill Champion as Rob, likeable but not admirable, is convincingly tired, withdrawn and selfish and his final self-revelation is extremely moving. We don’t get to see the full extent of the characters of both Alexandra Mathie (Alex) and Linford Johnson (Alf), but make the most of outbursts of temper and agonising fears of death, respectively.

Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable story, a beautiful tale of past and present uncertainties, and Alan has shown with his 85th production there is still plenty more story telling to come.

The Girl Next Door runs until Saturday 18th September 2021.

Box office 01782 717 962


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