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BWW Review: THE GIRL NEXT DOOR at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough UK

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a film of the new play by Alan Ayckbourn

BWW Review: THE GIRL NEXT DOOR at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough UK During the summer of 2020, most of us in lock-down were binge-watching Netflix and Zoom-meeting our colleagues. Not Alan Ayckbourn. He was writing his 85th play - one that exquisitely addresses the times we are living through, and the past we may have forgotten.

Bridging last summer with this one, the play has been filmed during a socially-distanced performance at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre, Ayckbourn's home-base for the last six and a half decades. Those who can't attend the SJT's limited run (which ends this weekend) would be wise to make this film must-see viewing (which, sadly, also ends this weekend).

Although Ayckbourn is first and foremost a play-maker, not a film-maker, after seeing his efficient direction and the wonderful performances he has elicited from his expert cast, one wonders why all his plays aren't feted with filming. His writing not only benefits from the probing lens of the camera - it thrives. Perhaps his most heart-felt play, what it lacks in robust humor, it more than makes up for in depth of emotion. As usual, Ayckbourn surrounds himself with both familiar faces and talented newcomers.

Bill Champion has never been better as Rob Hathaway, an actor trapped in lock-down with his sharpish sister, Alex, a government financial admin (Alexandra Mathie), who works from home in her pajama bottoms. One day he spots a stranger in the garden next door. He gamely strikes up a casual conversation with the cheerful young woman, who is wearing 1940s clothing and tending a victory garden where there used to be roses. Has Rob gone round the bend? Is it 2020 or 1942?

BWW Review: THE GIRL NEXT DOOR at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough UK

Lily, the girl next door of the title, is played with hopeful optimism by Naomi Petersen. Despite the blitz and a husband at the front, Lily tries to paint on a smile with her cherry-red lipstick. Across her privet hedge lurks a war of another kind - Covid-19. A delicate balance of flirtation and perseverance prevails, indicating that love knows no boundaries - even time.

"It's just another thing for you to cope with, isn't it? A couple of years ago... I could see the future - clearly. And the next minute - it's all gone."

Naturally, Lily's husband Alfie (a deeply moving performance by Linford Johnson), arrives on the scene just in time for pre-interval conflict and to add dimension to the second half of this two-hour, four-character film.

Ayckbourn wisely spends little time trying to explain the technicalities of their time warp; Rob chalking it up to something between Dr. Who and Star Trek. Instead, Ayckbourn expertly develops the complex and poignant relationships between the characters: brother and sister, husband and wife, strangers across a hedge, and ultimately - our most-complex relationship - with ourselves.

BWW Review: THE GIRL NEXT DOOR at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough UK

Sir Alan's play is gorgeously enhanced by the visual talents of Director of Photography Daniel Abell, who subtly interpolates close-ups of leaking drain pipes and kitchen counter-tops on Kevin Jenkins' puzzle-like set. Jason Taylor's spot-on lighting keeps the SJT's in-the-round auditorium lurking mostly in the shadows, allowing our full entry into GIRL's 'bubble' (for want of a better word). Once or twice a shadowy glimpse of a masked spectator sitting in the background adds emotional heft to Ayckbourn's staging, most movingly during Lily's line "None of us can see the future, can we?"

Front row seats in the most intimate auditorium will never be as totally engaging as this lovely filming of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. While it will never take the place of live theatre, a film like this, born of necessity, has allowed us a new level of appreciation for the brilliance of play-maker Sir Alan Ayckbourn.


Tickets for the film are £12 each ($16.75), with a group ticket available at £15 ($20.85). A version of the film with added bonus features including interviews with Alan Ayckbourn and Kevin Jenkins costs £20 ($27.80). Tickets can be bought online at www.sjt.uk.com.

all photographs ©Tony Bartholomew


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