The Girl Next Door review – Ayckbourn casts history’s lens on lockdown Britain

·2-min read

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.