Review: Ayckbourn's Adulterous Romp Is A Hilarious Affair
Alan Ayckbourn is not just our most prolific living playwright — having written about 80 plays over the last 60 years — but one of the most consistently innovative in terms of theatrical form. His 1969 play How the Other Half Loves is a technically brilliant period piece that still has some relevant things to say about marital relations and social class. This well-paced revival shows that it’s also still extremely funny.
Three very different couples (whose men all work for the same firm) become entangled in an adulterous affair full of deliciously absurd misunderstanding and mishap. Bored with her passionless marriage to pompous manager Frank Foster (Nicholas Le Prevost), posh Fiona (Jenny Seagrove) is having an affair with the ‘office Romeo’ Bob Phillips (Jason Merrells), whose wife Teresa (Tamzin Outhwaite) is struggling to cope with their toddler. When it looks like their relationship will be exposed, they use the complaisant new accountant William and equally conventional Mary Featherstone as alibis, dragged into a situation of which they are completely unaware.
Ayckbourn has fun playing around with both space and time. The Foster and Phillips living rooms are represented on stage within the same set, so characters frequently pass each other ‘invisibly’. And the dinner parties to which they invite the Featherstones on successive nights are staged simultaneously, with the guests continually swivelling around towards their respective hosts in a comic tour de force.
The relationships remain fundamentally believable, with the casual sexism of the husbands easily recognisable, and the snobbery and awkwardness involved in social situations rings true even now.
In some ways How the Other Half Loves is dated. The traditional male and female roles of breadwinner and homemaker have obviously changed hugely over the last 50 years, while class distinctions are nothing like as marked as they were. There is also heavy use of landline telephoning for humorous effect, while the plot would just not work in a world of mobile phones.
But the relationships of the three couples remain fundamentally believable, with the casual sexism of the husbands easily recognisable, and the snobbery and awkwardness involved in social situations rings true even now.
Director Alan Strachan, an Ayckbourn veteran, handles proceedings with assurance, maintaining a nice balance between the play’s elements of farce, black comedy and pathos. Julie Godfrey’s clever all-in-one design differentiates between the rigidly elegant upper-middle-class Foster home and that of the messy lower-middle-class Phillips family, with their separate contrasting entrances emphasising the gap.
The cast deliver the lines with immaculate timing. As the well-meaning but clueless Frank, Nicholas Le Prevost gives a very funny performance with a hint of sadness, as his attempts at relationship counselling resemble chairing a board meeting, while the cut-glass-accented Jenny Seagrove is also amusing as the long-suffering, frustrated Fiona.
Jason Merrells’s laddish Bob and Tamzin Outhwaite’s feisty Teresa are in some ways a perfect match, as sparks fly in their heated arguments. And Matthew Cottle’s tediously pedantic William may act deferentially to his ‘superiors’ but his controlling wrist slaps to Gillian Wright’s mousey, socially unconfident Mary reveal a cruel streak that becomes more evident in Ayckbourn’s later, darker work.
How the Other Half Loves is on at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 25 June. Tickets are £15—£75. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 06 April 2016