How the Other Half Loves

Alan Ayckbourn
Peter Hall Company: Theatre Royal Bath production
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Production photo

This is the play which, in 1969, first cemented Ayckbourn’s reputation as a playwright to watch, a reputation helped (or maybe hindered) by the larger-than-life Robert Morley taking the role of Frank Foster in the original London production, and we have been watching Ayckbourn plays ever since – seventy at the last count I believe. With acute observation he bases most of his plays on the foibles and idiosyncrasies of middle class English life with particular emphasis on marriage and relationships but, exploring the use of time and space in a manner of which Dali would be proud, he throws in a new and extraordinary dimension – in this case having two dinner parties taken over two nights and in two separate flats present on stage together and occurring at the same time – always a challenge to directors, designers, and stage managers.

Designer Paul Farnsworth has, as always, risen to the challenge and produced an intricately detailed set brilliantly merging the two totally diverse flats into one, immaculate and elegant furnishings of the Foster’s apartment mixed with the chaotic and slovenly decor of the socially inferior Phillips.

Cool, stylish and self possessed Fiona Foster (Marsha Fitzalan) is having a fling with Bob Phillips (Richard Stacey, with a very good Geordie accent) – obviously a lady who likes a ‘bit of rough’, and Bob is as rough as they come, berating his wife for her slovenly habits while stubbing out his cigarette in a peanut butter sandwich. Making excuses to their respective spouses for being out most of the previous night they each invent as their alibi one of a third couple, the boringly inoffensive and innocent Featherstones, pretending that it is their marriage which is in trouble.

Trying to help, Frank invites the Featherstones to dinner on Thursday while Teresa Phillips (Claudia Elmhirst) issues her invitation for Friday, so the parties are merged into one, with Paul Kemp and Amanda Royle as William and Mary Featherstone, having the difficult task of attending two dinners simultaneously, being deferential in one household and appalled at the state of the other, expressions and mannerisms changing instantaneously as they swivel from one to the other.

Nicholas le Prevost is a gem as lovable husband Frank - a true gentleman, bumbling through life trying to do the right thing, but as inept at repairing household items as he is at mending relationships. He appears to run a successful company, but would never get to the office if his wife didn’t furnish him with hat and umbrella and practically push him out of the door. Their marriage is well-run, affectionate but cool, while that of the Phillips is passionately tumultuous.

There are darker elements to this comedy – Frank’s deflated sorrow when he finally discovers that it is his own wife who has been unfaithful, and there is a hard and frightening violence under Bob’s rough arrogance. Even equable William can be aroused to anger and wields a mean monkey wrench, but even this becomes comical when he is forced to apologise to Mary and can’t quite get out the words. “Well,” excuses Mary, “It’s difficult for him. He’s never been wrong before”.

A man who can keep an audience laughing for two gloriously entertaining hours certainly deserves his place as one of Britain’s most popular playwrights and this show, meticulously directed by Alan Strachan, and performed to perfection by an exceptional cast, is a joy.

Allison Vale reviewed this production at its opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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