Despite some mutterings that advancing years may have lessened Alan Ayckbourn’s creative abilities, his name is usually a quality kite-mark. It is pleasing to report that The Girl Next Door – his 85th full-length play – proves that Ayckbourn is still at the top of his game and no aficionado will be disappointed.
Set in the kitchens and gardens of neighbouring terraced houses in London one day in early August, the male lead is Rob – a sixty-something actor who has fallen on hard times and who is still bitter at losing his starring role in NFS. NFS is a serial drama about a firefighting team in war-torn Britain and allowed Rob to become a household name. Since his part was written out in ignominious fashion, roles have been hard to come by and the pandemic lockdown is a trying time for him even though he has the company of his sister Alex.
He notices an unknown woman hanging out her washing next door and when he goes round to investigate, he finds that although the date is still August 5th, he is now in 1942. Although at first he finds this completely baffling, he is willing to accept that it is a “tear in the time-space continuum” – a phenomenon of which he has gained knowledge through stints in Dr Who and Star Trek.
The girl next door is revealed as Lily – a twenty-something wife and mother who is coping with her own particular lockdown in a far more harmonious way than Rob despite her husband Alf being away “doing his bit somewhere” in the Tank Regiment and her children having been evacuated to the country.
Internet searches are required to convince Alex that the whole story is not just a product of her brother’s over-fertile imagination and, sadly, the search suggests that Alex has been killed at El Alamein. So imagine the shock to both Rob and Lily who, after bonding over a bottle of brandy, are interrupted by Alf who has returned on 48-hour leave. A dramatic end to Act 1!!
Act 2 sees the four characters developing their friendships while revealing Alf’s fears and wishes and a final twist unveils the fact that Lily has had a greater influence on Rob’s life and career than he ever suspected.
Bill Champion as Rob and Naomie Peterson as Lily both put in excellent performances and show off their comedic timing to good effect. They are convincing both as individuals and as a couple and prove that opposites in the shape of a depressed pessimist and cheery optimist can be attracted to each other and fall in love. They are ably supported by Alexandra Mathie who portrays no-nonsense career woman Alex very effectively and Linford Johnson who does well to make his character have both a jack-the-lad personality alongside that of a young man dealing with inner torment.
As expected in an Alan Ayckbourn play, there are chuckles aplenty. These are based around the differences between the time periods both in regard to the day-to-day practicalities and societal expectations. Women’s role in society and same-sex marriage are both touched on and probably could have been developed further but did show how far we have come in the past eighty-odd years.
The main themes, though, are that love can travel and survive through time and that our current woes have been experienced before. With love and hope, mankind will be the winner.
Special mention must be made of the excellent set designed by Kevin Jenkins and the atmospheric sound and lighting provided by Paul Stear and Jason Taylor respectively.
If you wish to spend a late-summer evening at the theatre, I can give my heartfelt recommendation to get along to the New Vic for this production. You won’t be disappointed!!
Including interval, The Girl Next Door lasts for 2hours 30 minutes. The run continues until 18th September. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org