How the Other Half Loves

Alan Ayckbourn
The Mill at Sonning
The Mill at Sonning Theatre

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Emily Pithon as Mary Featherstone, Ruth Gibson as Teresa Phillips and Ben Porter as William Featherstone Credit: Andreas Lambis
Stuart Fox as Frank Foster Credit: Andreas Lambis
Julia Hills as Fiona Foster and Stuart Fox as Frank Foster Credit: Andreas Lambis
Ruth Gibson as Teresa Phillips and Damien Matthews as Bob Phillips Credit: Andreas Lambis

One of Ayckbourne’s early plays—a West End success in 1970—How the Other Half Loves was innovative in its stagecraft and gained a reputation for being very funny, and Robin Herford’s production for The Mill is certainly entertaining, but things have moved on.

It presents a set of three couples: Frank and Fiona Foster, he an older, very staid manager of a business, Bob Phillips, who is one of his senior staff, and his wife Teresa and William Featherstone, a junior employee in the same firm, and his wife Mary. Fiona is fed up with her tedious husband and boring marriage and is having a secret affair with Rob Phillips, who is the company Romeo. Meanwhile, an unknowing Teresa is at the end of her tether trying to cope with their troublesome baby.

The Featherstones get involved when Fiona gives a non-existent meeting with Mary as the reason she was home late when she had actually been with Bob. Which might not have been questioned had it not been on the night of her wedding anniversary.

All this leads to a complex web of misunderstandings and complications in a cleverly contrived script, which has scenes taking place in two households at the same time on the same set. Though played with panache, that no longer seems startling stagecraft, and perhaps plays about the sherry-drinking classes aren’t as funny as they used to be, and poking fun at the lower ranks no longer so hilarious. This isn’t critical social satire but nearer to farce, though without its abandon.

Michael Holt’s set has its own tongue-in-cheek jokes: it is like two 1950s rep sets joined together, their wall lights over high and lighting nothing, but totally clear in which door or hallway belongs which house. Natalie Titchener’s costumes highlight the class difference between the Featherstones and the others, and Herford’s direction keeps the pace up, but scene changes slow things down; is there really the need to move so much furniture?

However, the mechanics are well oiled and the cast all work hard. Stuart Fox is delightfully eccentric as Frank Foster, though how someone so incompetent could run a company beats credibility. Emily Pithon brings some real creditability to her Mary Featherstone, Ruth Gibson is all fluster as Teresa Phillips and there is a hint in Julia Hills’s Fiona Foster that this isn’t the first time she has hoodwinked her husband.

This isn’t the best of the Ayckbourn oeuvre, but, especially when preceded by the Mill restaurant’s delicious two-course meal that comes with the ticket, How The Other Half Loves makes an entertaining night or afternoon out.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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