Towards the end of Alan Aykbourn’s How The Other Half Loves, the cold and brittle Fiona sarcastically suggests that the mess-making off-spring of Teresa and Bob Phillips looks like “unsuccessful Hogarth”. This hilarious, but classical allusion, was totally lost on the audience around me, all of whom did not react. It’s not that they had not been reacting – jokes about infidelity, sexual and domestic abuse, class attitudes had all brought the house down. But a joke which required a rudimentary knowledge of art went without a snigger of appreciation.
Times change. Well, at least Audiences do.
When How The Other Half Loves first premiered in the West End it was 1970 and its success, his second major one following Relatively Speaking, cemented Ayckbourn’s career as a successful dramatist. Unfairly, Ayckbourn is regarded as an inferior writer these days and does not usually get fair treatment by producers or critics.
In truth, however, Ayckbourn is a very skilled playwright, with a keen eye for sharply observed characters who reflect the British character and a fine and rapid wit. He writes perfect one-liners as well as intriguing, sometimes elliptical, scenarios which surprise, delight and effortless amuse.
Like many of his great plays, How The Other Half Loves concerns three couples: the Fosters, the Phillips and the Featherstones. The Fosters are the central force. Frank Foster runs an expanding department in which Bob Phillips already works and to which William Featherstone is shortly to be promoted. Bob and Fiona Foster have a night of torrid passion one day and through a series of misinformations Frank comes to believe that it was Mary Featherstone with whom Bob was committing adultery. Trying to be kind, he breaks the news to William who doesn’t take it well. Excruciating comedy all along the way.
So far, so Ray Cooney. But Ayckbourn is wittier and more challenging in form. The action is set in two living rooms simultaneously: The Fosters’ rather grand house and The Phillips’ more working class flat. This provides opportunities for splendidly impressive physical comedy, as action occurs simultaneously in both living rooms. The actors must be completely in their own space while sharing it with other actors completely in their own space.
Not content with that, Ayckbourn also simultaneously stages a dinner party in both living rooms on different nights as the Featherstones dine with each of the other couples on successive nights. This is the true coup de théâtre of the evening and requires pitch-perfect, precision timing from all, but especially the Featherstones.
Happily, the current revival of How The Other Half Loves, directed by Alan Strachan, and playing at the Haymarket Theatre, is a real triumph. Impeccably cast and directed with a sure, clean style, it offers laughs by the bucketload as well as a fair bit of food for thought.
Despite the passage of time since Ayckbourn wrote it, some nearly fifty years, the writing and the gags still feel entirely modern. Strachan sets this production firmly in 1969, and that affords an opportunity for Julie Godfrey to enjoy herself creating decor and costumes that loudly and clearly evoke that time, but there is really no reason why it could not be set in the present day. These types of people are still everywhere in Britain and they are not going anywhere and it is good to have their prejudices and foibles unsparingly skewered by Ayckbourn’s comic sword.
The one sour note is an old fashioned view of the kind of violence acceptable within a marriage. Mr Phillips is alarmingly sexually aggressive towards Mrs Featherstone, and although it seems funny because of the way she reacts, it is still across the line. Equally, both Mr and Mrs Phillips are violent to each other, usually as a prelude to sex. Once again, laughter comes because of the situation, but there is certainly a dirty taste in one’s mouth once the laughter has subsided.
Violence and sexual violence within marriage is not a laughing matter. In this way, times have really changed. The systemic violence Mr Featherstone displays to Mrs Featherstone, hurting her to “improve” her, ought see him arrested these days. Looking at the play, it really ought to be possible to stage those scenes with just as much efficacy without the domestic violence.
It is a credit to the performers and to Strachan that these reservations are overwhelmed by the sense of comedy all inspire. One endures the violence, which is not unduly excessive, waiting for the genuinely infectious machinations and misunderstandings, across the rooms and timelines, to return to the fore. Paying attention to the web of deceit and false illumination reaps real rewards.
Nicholas Le Prevost is outstandingly good as the pompous, self-deluded handyman and relationship counsellor that is Frank. He is so lost in climbing the social ladder that he can’t remember the time he and Fiona lived in Woking. Le Prevost sparkles in the dim absurdity of the man, with faultless timing and a tone oscillating brilliantly between acerbic and baffled. This is a superb realisation of one of of Ayckbourn’s most satirical creations.
Just as good, in a totally different way, is Gillian Wright, who is hysterically funny as the shy, socially awkward Mary. Wright has the ability to make her whole self seem to shrink into near oblivion whenever something frightens or unsettles Mary. The prospect of answering a ringing telephone roots her to the spot and great shuddering convulsions overtake her as she struggles towards the receiver. Wright is the definition of hysterical – in temperament and effect.
She has a glorious comic partner in Matthew Cottle who is an unrelenting joy as William, the male Featherstone. He is a study in fussy, prim handyman, subservient accountant and tyrannical husband. When he finally loses the plot, his manic outrage is worth savouring. With Wright, he establishes incredible comic-double timing and together they make the transitions in the combined dinner sequence sublimely funny. They are stylish in their shabbiness and make quite incredible sequences seem unfeasibly feasible.
Wright also has a genuinely touching moment towards the end of the play when she quietly, and rightly, seeks an apology from Cottle. She is graceful and stunning here, genuinely touching. And the resolution of the uncomfortable moment is another triumph for Wright and Cottle, and a reverse justification for their relationship. Everything about this marriage rings true – and they are very funny.
Less successful, although not fatal, is Jenny Seagrove as Fiona. She is brittle and snobby, appropriately, but her character never quite rings true. There is an artificiality about her voice and manner which irks. She does not make the relationship with Frank seem real and nor does she convince as adulteress. But she manages well enough.
The other couple, the Phillips, are the aspirational working class couple with a baby and they are played pungently and with raw, uncompromising gusto by Jason Merrells and Tamzin Outhwaite (who could be auditioning for Sigourney Weaver’s replacement in the Alien series). Both give physical and sexually potent performances.
Outhwaite is a revelation, in her pink/white knee high boots and psychedelic outfits. She exudes base animal spirit and the sense of marital unhappiness she creates is palpable. But, equally, the real attraction she has for her jack-the-lad husband is convincing. They are trapped in a cycle of rejection, lust and complacency – it’s a very real, uncomfortably commonplace relationship.
Merrells makes Bob an archetypal louche and layabout, used to having no trouble pulling birds. He aspires to the sort of life he imagines rich people live and, in particular, he wants a wife who is a house slave. Outhwaite has other ideas, constantly rebels, and writes letters to The Guardian. They work very well together and provide the edgy, carnal couple in the mix. They too are very funny.
The physical schtick is excellently managed by all. Two telephones at the front of the stage provide an unlikely but constant source of amusement. The constant ratcheting up of the time shifts is handled brilliantly by all, and the close of Act One is one of the funniest and cleverest bits of comic playing the West End has seen since One Man Two Guvnors.
There is a splendid 60s soundtrack which punctuates the scenes (Dan Sansom) and Jason Taylor’s lighting is first rate. Strachan’s vision of the period detail, in look, feel and performance, is impeccable.
This is a really funny night in the theatre. Not be missed. The only depressing note is that today’s audiences are not educated enough anymore to understand the Hogarth joke. That says quite a lot about modern society in itself.