How The Other Half Loves
by Alan Ayckbourn
The Lyric Theatre
The Lowry, Salford
12 September 2017
The revival of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s earliest successes, the 1970 sex comedy How The Other Half Loves, is one that really puts the playwright’s relevance and the longevity of his work to the test. There’s no attempt to update the play to a contemporary setting in this latest production, but although How The Other Half Loves remains within the late 60s/early 70s, there’s no attempt to play it just as a period piece in the new production directed by Alan Strachan currently touring the UK; its values remain mostly relevant and recognisable, and – most importantly – it’s still very funny.
How The Other Half Loves is very much a product of its time, viewing the permissive society as a social experiment if you like, the comedy arising from the incompatibility or differences that arise when it is applied to the lives of ordinary British couples from all walks of life, constrained by inhibitions and class boundaries, easily shocked by permissive behaviour and still placing value in traditional and rather rigidly defined gender roles. It’s all a bit of a Carry On, with less of the double-entendres and a little bit more of a theatrical spin on the old formula.
The plot by bedroom farce standards isn’t in itself particularly knotty, involving as it does only one philandering pair, but as ever the little fibs that are used to cover it up end up growing into great whoppers that only create suspicion of even wilder carryings-on where it seems that everyone believes that everyone except themselves is ‘at it’. Ayckbourn of course mines that confusion for all its comic potential, but aside from the underlying social issues it highlights, the playwright also introduces some less conventional dramatic structuring, playing with time-lines and simultaneous overlapping scenes, that make things a little more complicated and a lot more funny.
The unlikely philandering pair who disrupt the proper order of things in How The Other Half Loves are Bob and Fiona. Bob Philips is a bit of a jack-the-lad, an office worker who is married to Teresa, and it’s left to his wife to fulfil the traditional women’s role of looking after her man, cooking, cleaning and bringing up the baby. She’s not coping with it terribly well and has to put aside her aspirations to be a journalist in favour of writing letters to the editor of the Guardian. She doesn’t know that Bob is secretly having a fling with Fiona, the posh wife of his boss Frank Foster.
After a late Wednesday rendezvous, Bob and Fiona have to come up with an innocuous lie to explain to their partners why they were out so late. Bob tells Fiona (after the obligatory sequence of wrong partners picking up phantom phone calls) that Teresa has seemed to accept the story that he was offering marital advice to a colleague, William Featherstone, who believes his wife Mary is having an affair. The fabrication seems to work so Fiona, when put on the spot, spins the same yarn to her husband that Mary Featherstone has confided in her that she thinks William is having an affair. The Featherstones are the least likely couple ever to have affairs outside their marriage, so when Teresa and Frank invite the Featherstones to dinner to discuss their non-existent problem, confusion, suspicion and hilarity inevitably ensues.
Or at least it should, and thankfully in this new production it does. The trick of course is not to confuse the audience too much and allow them to keep a handle on what is going on so that they can anticipate the problems that will arise. To prevent this from becoming too formulaic however and to keep the audience on their toes, Ayckbourn contrasts the situations in the Philips and the Foster households by having them overlap and share the same space on the stage at the same time. The set is divided into interweaving sections – one rather more luxuriously fitted than the other – that mean that the Fosters and Philips have to invisibly pass each other as they go through their domestic routines.
It’s a theatrical equivalent of a cinematic split screen but with a twist that Bob has to walk through the Foster’s living room to get to his bedroom. The purpose of it is not immediately apparent, nor why they couldn’t occupy distinct parts of the stage, but in addition to delivering some funny visual gags – the best being Mary Featherstone’s anguished wail as she dashes from the Philips’ household to the Fosters’ in a couple of steps – it also allows for some contrasts to be drawn to the respective lives of the couples and their attitudes. But Ayckborn also ambitiously plays out the Fosters’ Thursday night dinner party with the Featherstones simultaneously with the Philips’ Friday night dinner party with the Featherstones.
While the structural aspects add another dimension to the comedy, it’s the characterisation that is really key to the success of Alan Ayckbourn’s writing and it’s in the delivery that a production will entertain and amuse. They might be familiar stock character types, but there’s a very human side to each of them that it is easy to recognise for the deeper resonance that identification will bring. The central figure of Frank is vital to establishing the right tone that the others will play off and Robert Daws is simply terrific. Although it might seem like it, Frank is no bumbling fool, and just like his obsession with persisting in fixing these new-fangled technology things, he doesn’t let Fiona away with her vague brushing-off of the matter and keeps coming back to it, determined to get a ‘fix’ on these new-fangled modern relationship things. Daws hits every stumbled awkward intervention and interjection note-perfectly, being funny and sympathetic at the same time.
Bob and Teresa are by no means perfect examples of the younger more free-thinking couple – and Bob’s unreconstructed treatment of women is possibly one of the more dated and caricatured aspects of the play – but if they are not so much sexually liberated there are nonetheless class barriers that are starting to be crossed in Bob’s fling with Fiona and in the Philips’ ambitions to be part of the ‘dinner party’ set. The Featherstones are more or less a foil for the comic antics of this tentative and very English attempt to stretch boundaries, but they very much embody the deep reserve that sits uneasily alongside it and Sara Crowe and Matthew Cottle play the bewildered and emboldened Featherstones just brilliantly. Hilarity does indeed ensue, and Ayckbourn’s analysis of the peculiarities of how the other half live and love still holds up very well indeed.
Robert Daws – Frank Foster
Caroline Langrishe – Fiona Foster
Sara Crowe – Mary Featherstone
Matthew Cottle – William Featherstone
Charlie Brooks – Teresa Philips
Leon Ockenden – Bob Philips
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