Every year without fail at least one Alan Ayckbourn revival arrives in the West End, and it’s always something to look forward to. Having written around 80 full length plays, I’ve only managed to see a relatively tiny fraction of them and with Ayckbourn developing new work every year at his Scarborough base we may never entirely catch-up. His greatest skill is using a comedy shell to present the small domestic sadnesses that plague everyday lives, of people trapped and unable to escape their circumstances giving considerable pathos to his work that lingers long after you’ve stopped laughing.
This balance of comedy and gentle suffering is more pronounced in Ayckbourn’s later works, as his story-telling and character development grew, and a number of notable modern comedians have been drawn to his plays in recent years including Catherine Tate in Season’s Greetings at the National Theatre and Reece Shearsmith in Absent Friends at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The latest Ayckbourn revival is How the Other Half Loves at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of his earliest works that while providing plenty of farcical fun, doesn’t quite have the same depth of character as more recent productions.
How the Other Half Loves is a classic crossed-wires comedy involving three couples. Frank and Fiona Foster are a middle class couple in a classic home, married for years and sunk into a gentle frustration with each other. Fiona is having an affair with the younger Bob Phillips who works for Frank but to cover her tracks she lies about counselling her friend Mary Featherstone whose husband William (who also works for Frank) is cheating on her. Meanwhile Bob’s wife Teresa suspects his infidelity but is told that Bob has been helping William who’s discovered Mary is cheating. In the midst of all this, the innocent Featherstone’s appear at both homes for dinner unaware they are the subjects of an elaborate dupe.
It’s a classic and skilfully performed farce that makes good use of its all-star cast. With both the Foster and Phillips home merged together brilliantly by the set-designer, the action flows so smoothly that you never have to question whose home you’re in. Everything from the walls to furnishings represent both residences in a considerable attention to detail that reflects the different classes, often in one item – for example in Act One the 3-seater sofa is 2 seats Foster and 1 shabbier seat Phillips, which becomes entirely Foster in Act Two and completely reversed in Act Three. And of course the relevant characters only ever sit or move to the furniture that belongs to their home, swerving round each other seamlessly as scenes intersect.
Leading the cast is a fabulous performance from Nicholas Le Prevost as Frank, a dithery and easily distracted man who infuriates his wife with his forgetfulness and interference. Even leaving the house is a palaver for Frank, yet of all the characters he is the one with the kindest heart and for whom the audience has the greatest sympathy. Although it is his instance on confronting the Featherstones that leads to much of the ensuing farce, Frank is someone that is caught up in a situation not really of his making and in Le Prevost’s skilled blend of comedy and tragedy you feel every ounce of hurt as the truth emerges.
Jenny Seagrove is Frank’s wife, a hardnosed Celia Johnson-type looking for a bit of excitement with a younger man. Although you never see them together it’s hard to imagine what on earth she would have in common with Bob and that relationship seems unconvincing. Yet you can see what drove her to an affair in what is a very domestic and limited existence. This is something common to the other women in the play as well as both Teresa and Mary are essentially housewives with considerably fewer opportunities than their husbands – the play was written in 1969 and set in the 70s here when this was a more common lot for women.
Gillian Wright and Matthew Cottle (who happily seems contracted to be in all Ayckbourn) are the reserved Mary and William Featherstone who enjoy a lot of the comedy as the farcical plot ramps up. Their set-piece moment is when the dinner-parties are run concurrently so that the couple are seated at 2 cross-shaped tables and swivel in the seats to participate in each event. It’s hilarious and skilfully done as we conjoin the events of two evenings, and considerable credit should go to Wright and Cottle for making this very difficult scene a seamlessly performed joy. They never lose their cool and you know exactly which evening it is at every moment – a difficult task for the actors, so for them to have made it seem effortless is a real achievement. But it’s also clear that they are more than just the patsies in this set-up with their own marriage issues hinted at through William’s bullying nature and Mary’s bid for authority that this builds up to.
The Phillips couple are the least successful in the play. Their exuberant passion is the only thing keeping them together, so while they fight incessantly, they have an overwhelming need for each other that overrides infidelity and irritation. They just lack any real depth or sympathy, which is partly the fault of the writing but also they try a little too hard to make it funny. Teresa is a harassed mother to a permanently unseen but chaotic baby and gets no support from her boozy husband Bob. Tamsin Outhwaite is a fiery Mrs Phillips pursuing social causes and yelling endlessly at her husband, but it’s a bit of a one note performance that never quite reveals her purpose. Likewise Jason Merrells as Bob is self-involved, brash and a bit of a pig – seemingly an unlikely romantic choice for Fiona, and we never really learn anything about him.
How the Other Half Loves received almost universally good reviews and it certainly deserves them in many ways, yet seeing this recently I couldn’t help but wonder if it had lost some of its fizz since press night. Some actors say it’s best to see a show near the end of the run when the characters have developed considerably since the early days (I like a preview personally so I can make up my own mind before the critics) but I wonder whether the same can be said for this type of comedy where in the early shows the spontaneity feels less rehearsed but by the time they’re several weeks or months in, some of the spark has gone. Perhaps too it is the cavernous space of the Theatre Royal Haymarket which makes Ayckbourn’s intimate domestic dramas feel a little lost. Ayckbourn’s Scarborough theatre is a small in the round space which brings the audience closer to what’s going on which London’s proscenium arches can never do. The Old Vic’s The Norman Conquests worked so well because of the transformed in the round space they created, but Ayckbourn often feels lost in the bigger venues – maybe not for those in the stalls but in the upper circle you’re considerably distanced from events.
Nonetheless an annual outing to at least one Ayckbourn is a real treat and as they’re performed so rarely on the fringe, seeing them in a big West End space is better than not seeing them at all. There is plenty to enjoy in Alan Strachan’s version not least the glorious design and first rate performances from Le Prevost, Wright and Cottle in particular. With Ayckbourn’s characters, relationships are never quite what they seem and while his second play lacks the pathos and development of his later works, it has plenty of comic entertainment and technical genius to make up for it.
How the Other Half Loves is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 25 June. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.