The Girl Next Door: World Premiere Reviews

This page features a selection of reviews of the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's The Girl Next Door at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, during June 2021. All reviews are copyright of the respective organisation.

Ayckbourn’s entertaining time-travelling romance by Dominic Maxwell (The Times)
How did you spend your lockdown? Rob, the ageing TV heart-throb hero of Alan Ayckbourn’s 85th full-length play, had one to remember. Stuck at home in north London, he finds himself falling for his unsuitable new neighbour. A new neighbour who is not only a married mum of two in her twenties but also a housewife from 1942. He and his economist sister have Zoom meetings and tedium to put up with. Lily has air raids, evacuee kids and a husband fighting at El Alamein.
You’ve got to hand it to the staggeringly prolific Ayckbourn, here directing the main cast while another director works separately with a back-up cast in case Covid strikes any of the main four actors. The Girl Next Door, the first of four plays he wrote last year, is once again as full of ideas and empathy for characters straining against their straitened realities as it is with playful tweaks on storytelling. Yes, some of the set-up could be swifter, which would leave more time to develop promising rather than fully realised characters. Heavens, though, there is wit, warmth and mischief to be found here.
Kevin Jenkins’s fine set shows us one kitchen and garden nudging up against the other. The way the characters can squeeze through the hedge to travel 78 years backwards or forwards is never explained (probably for the best), except when Rob draws on the time- travel lingo he has gleaned from occasional roles in Star Trek and Doctor Who. What matter more are the moments of culture clash through the decades. Pointed ones, as they touch on changing attitudes to race, gender and sexuality and how Lily copes with her horrendously upended daily life. Joyously funny, as Rob takes Lily through the gear in his modern kitchen: “This is my stove, with its induction hob . . . conventional oven, fan- assisted of course.”
Bill Champion gives a delightful lead performance as the vain but adorable Rob. He has depressive incidents and remains bitter about losing his prime 1990s TV role as a heroic Second World War firefighter. Yet we know, through the presence of the forthrightly funny Alexandra Mathie as his sister and housemate, that he is not imagining all this. It’s a shame that there isn’t more room to explore a supposed love between him and Lily that only really plays here as a glimmer of attraction.
And if Lily is asked to stay in her mustn’t-grumble gear a touch too much, for all that Ayckbourn allows her fear, desire and frustration to seep through, Naomi Petersen absolutely nails the seriocomic tone needed. Linford Johnson has fun as the outwardly boorish, inwardly scared husband who should have died in the war but somehow didn’t. Alternative time streams? No, Ayckbourn knows that we only get one life, and we bodge through it as best we can. Yes, the speed of its creation leaves it a fair few tweaks away from perfection, but The Girl Next Door is inventive and empathetic, timely and fun.

(by Dominic Maxwell, The Times, 9 June 2021)

Ayckbourn casts history’s lens on lockdown Britain (The Guardian)
The prolific playwright is on fine form with an uncanny story that smartly contrasts national crises past and present.
Domestic life was quiet during lockdown but the few things that did happen had an edge of the surreal. Early in the pandemic someone dug a trench in my neighbour’s shared garden. We never found out who or why. And does anyone remember the great yeast shortage?
With this in mind, the premise of Alan Ayckbourn’s 85th full-length play is entirely plausible. It’s the height of the pandemic and when Rob, an out-of-work actor, looks over the garden hedge, he sees Lily, a 1940s mother of two whose husband is serving in North Africa. In a clever and playful script, the 82-year-old dramatist juxtaposes the rationing and blackouts of wartime London with the Zoom calls and social distancing of today.
With the ease of Mr Benn stepping through the changing room, Rob passes through the hedge on a journey of self-discovery. Played with appropriate neediness by Bill Champion (two casts alternate), he realises his small-screen fame as firefighter Tiger Jennings counts for nothing to a woman who has never heard of television. His image as a hero pales when people are fighting an actual war.
Ayckbourn wisely avoids becoming weighed down either by the tropes of the Covid era or with the conundrums of his sci-fi conceit. Instead he takes a longer view, exploring the distance travelled between then and now, in particular for women.
Lily, played with a winning combination of certainty and innocence by Naomi Petersen, is mystified by a future that promises dishwashers and same-sex marriage but seems short of the principles she holds dear.
Ayckbourn, born in 1939, has said his earliest memory is of sheltering from a bombing raid and, although he doesn’t claim one era to be superior, he does make us consider what has changed between these two moments of national crisis. Without overstating the case, he lines up the narcissism of the modern world and the sacrifice of wartime. As both traumatic events have taken place within the playwright’s life, it is not only illuminating to see them side by side, but also strangely logical.

(by Mark Fisher, The Guardian, 11 June 2021)

A salute to Sir Alan Ayckbourn, for timely play number 85 (Daily Mail)
Shakespeare wrote 37. George Bernard Shaw wrote more than 60. But Alan Ayckbourn has topped them both with his 85th play, The Girl Next Door.
That's more plays than he's lived years. It's a colossal achievement, and even Ayckbourn's sceptics must surely now salute him as our greatest living playwright.
And on the evidence of this latest work, his powers are undimmed. It's the story of 60- year-old veteran thespian and womaniser Rob Hathaway who has lockdown boredom when he spies a woman in 1940s clothes, hanging washing in his neighbours' garden.
Going to investigate, he discovers a space-time anomaly: he is in Tier 3 in 2020, but girl- next-door Lily is in the 1942 Blitz, while her husband fights in the battle of El Alamein.
The play is a delightful mix of past and present, with Ayckbourn connecting Lily's experience of the blackouts with our experience of Covid. It's a brilliantly constructed play, turning inconsequential details into later revelations, exploiting a nice dilemma about the perils of meddling in the past and ending with a twist that transforms the tale into an uncanny ghost story.
Best of all, Ayckbourn wants nothing more than our amusement, offsetting his characters' foibles with sweetness and sensitivity. Bill Champion's Rob is an affable Lothario who tries to explain the science of his experience with reference to a one-off appearance in Dr Who. But the heart of the play is Naomi Petersen as Lily, who illuminates the stage with a sunny smile and cheerfully accepts the extraordinary breach in the laws of physics.
As always with Ayckbourn in Scarborough, the play is presented in the round with the audience on all sides, reminding us that the action is all about us and is a tale of endurance and rebirth.
It's Ayckbourn's ability to show our airs and graces in our fitted kitchens and patios (contrasted with next door's rusty tap and vegetable garden) that make him an enduring man of the people.

(by Patrick Marmion, Daily Mail, 11 June 2021)

Ayckbourn’s inventive time-bending comedy (The Observer)
Two sets of neighbours from 2020 and 1942 interact in an entertaining tale of love and endurance.
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.

(by Clare Brennan, The Observer, 12 June 2021)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication / author.