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Veteran playwright Alan Ayckbourn, born in 1939, has lived through both the Second World War and the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, his 85th full-length show playfully compares Zoom calls in your pyjama bottoms to rationing, and lockdown restrictions to the blackouts of the war.
The Girl Next Door saw the New Vic’s stage split into quarters – on one side we found out-of-work actor Rob Hathaway sitting in his modern, tech-filled kitchen. It was August 2020, and 60-year-old Rob (though much younger in his mind) found himself in sullen isolation with his sensible older sister, Alex, played by Alexandra Mathie.
Rob (Bill Champion) was the living embodiment of everything we’d felt at one time or another during the pandemic. Lonely, miserable and easily irritated, finding ourselves with noses pressed to windows just to watch something other than The Chase and Loose Women. But in peering out of his kitchen window, Rob spots a woman in her 20s in next doors garden, bringing the washing in. But, the Jessop’s who live there have been isolating in Dorset – so who is the pretty lady in a 1940s dress and apron in the garden?
As Rob goes to investigate, he’s met with a veg patch of a garden – far different to the Jessop’s usual manicured lawn and rose bush – and a vintage kitchen featuring a tiny stove, laundry press and pre-war china mugs. He found himself in Lily Tindall’s kitchen – and in the year 1942 – the midst of WWII.
The Girl Next Door, performed by Stephen Joseph Theatre, takes a light-hearted look at the national crises that happened 78 years apart. No-one would have thought they’d want the first show they saw after theatres reopened to be one about the pandemic, but I’d urge anyone to book a ticket to this comedic play filled with satire and sarcasm, snubbing the government in all the right places with classic Ayckbourn wit.
The set was incredible. Put together by Kevin Jenkins, we saw two kitchens and two gardens, each modern of their time. One thing I love about the New Vic is that it’s a theatre-in-the-round (Europe’s first purpose-built, in fact). The newly-refurbished auditorium gave each and every audience member a slightly different look at the set and characters, which offers a new experience wherever you sit.
The props helped bring the entire set to life – from Kellogg’s Cornflakes and oat milk, to the steam rising from the kettle – all the way down to the bottles of Becks beer. Just don’t tell Lily’s husband Alf (Linford Johnson) where they’re from!
Ayckbourn, aged 82, said: “Life does go in cycles and what I find curiously interesting is that I’ve lived through that part of the cycle during the war and now I’ve gone all the way back round to that part of the cycle again!
“I’m pretty sure nothing’s moved on. All that’s happened is social media has just made everyone more aware that there’s a lot of other people doing rather well out of this crisis: the myth of us all being in the same boat together, I guess, is even less convincing today.
“It was a strange time when I look back on it. It’s amazing we survived at all!”
For me, Naomi Petersen, playing Lily, stole the show. Her costume, accent and sassy sarcasm illuminated the stage, and her hopeful, optimistic attitude have her an air of Rosie the Riveter – always ready to do her bit.
The Girl Next Door is an uplifting, laugh-out-loud funny juxtaposition between dire straits of 1942 and 2020 laced between an endearing love story that will leave you with tears in your eyes. It reminds us of what we’ve overcome in the face of adversity, and looks for hope and positivity as the world slowly heals and life returns to normal.
You can catch the show at the New Vic until Saturday, September 18, with tickets costing just £17.50 and can be booked by calling the Box Office on 01782 717962 or online at newvictheatre.org.uk.