If the title leads you to expect hallmark Alan Ayckbourn split set and inventive staging, then his 85th full-length play will not disappoint. The action takes place in the kitchens and gardens of two homes in a north London terrace. As so often with Ayckbourn, there’s a twist – the houses occupy the same space but not the same time, at least not exactly. At No 15, sixtysomething brother and sister Rob and Alex are enduring lockdown in 2020. At No 17, twentysomething Lily is hoping her children are all right and waiting to hear news of her husband, Alf, who is overseas, with the “Fifth Royal Tanks… somewhere or other”; here, the year is 1942. In both houses, the date is 5 August. How can this be? “A tear in the fabric of the space-time continuum,” explains out-of-work actor Rob to Lily, his expertise based on playing bit parts in episodes of Doctor Who and Star Trek.
The situation gives rise to comedy and pathos. Comedy is sparked by the contrasts of past and present, both practical (Lily’s reaction to Rob’s kitchen appliances, for instance) and societal (the roles of men and women at home and at work). The pathos springs from the fact that the characters on either side of the time divide are equally helpless in the face of world events; love and mutual acceptance are what see them through. Unusually for Ayckbourn, the plot is worked more through dialogue rather than via the clashing needs and preoccupations of the characters. Consequently, then-and-now sexist attitudes sometimes feel too much like cliches – demonstrations rather than dramatisations of contrasts.
Ayckbourn’s direction is, as always, sheer genius. Set (Kevin Jenkins), lighting (Jason Taylor) and sound (Ayckbourn, with Paul Stear) are as witty as they are effective. The ensemble is terrific, individually and collectively – special mention to Bill Champion and Naomi Petersen, Rob and Lily respectively (on press night; two casts alternate during the run). The message – all you need is love – is timeless.
The Girl Next Door is at Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, until 3 July