Review: The Girl Next Door (Stephen Joseph Theatre, online)

Alan Ayckbourn’s 85th play takes the COVID lockdown as inspiration for a time-travelling tale of friendship and assurance as Rob (Bill Champion) crosses his garden hedge to find himself looking at Lily (Naomi Petersen), a 1940s housewife, and her rows of vegetables and Anderson shelter.

To ensure no performances have to be cancelled due to Covid-19, the theatre has created two sets of casts who are isolating within separate bubbles. Linford Johnson plays Alfie (brother of Lily), Alexandra Mathie is Alex (Rob’s sister).

Kevin Jenkins designs the detailed set which consists of two kitchens and two gardens, placing each household square in their times. The ‘up to the minute’ stove of wartine, the dishwasher of our own times. The shadowy suggestion of the world ahead.

What seems an initially preposterous plotline turns into a lightly comic romance of sorts as the modern soap actor, twice divorced, clicks with the young housewife whose husband is away fighting and children are evacuated away from danger.

Naomi Petersen as Lily in The Girl Nexf Door

There are many themes explored in Ayckbourn’s script, which he also directs – perhaps too many to deal with in a two-hour running time. There is also more coherence on the 1942 side of the garden than in modern lockdown, as other than an occasional mention of Zoom and Skype, it is quickly overlooked.

By the ending (or rather two endings, both rather expected) the wartime couple and 21st century siblings have been fully explored and their similiarities and differences have been highlighted. For both race relations and gay relations, attitudes are surprisingly modern on the 1940s side.

The Girl Next Door is charming, and proves Ayckbourn retains his writing form. His cast do not miss a moment and convince completely in this ambitious production.

Until 3 July you can watch the play in person at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre – book here. The streamed version is available until 4 July – book here.

Image credit: Tony Bartholomew

LouReviews received complimentary access to review The Girl Next Door.