“This is hardly a subject for mirth, darling!” Frank Foster exclaims, as a ludicrous web of deceit and misunderstanding collapses around him. Oh, but it is. Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy about adultery and alibis may be getting on a bit but it’s still fearsomely funny.
Three couples are thrown together by a love affair and the attempts of the guilty parties to cover up their misdemeanours, but this is far more than just a clear-cut case of adultery. Both of its time and timelessly relevant, How the Other Half Loves is a two-and-a-half-hour exposé of gender politics and class divides. It’s a portrait of 1960s Britain, with its rituals and niceties, lubricated by tea, coffee and copious amounts of sherry.
Ayckbourn’s wit skewers every one of his six hapless characters; he, unlike his thuggish creations, does not discriminate. Frank Foster (Nicholas Le Prevost) and Fiona Foster (Jenny Seagrove) are a well-to-do couple with a fancy house (with no less than two toilets and requisite ‘bathroom stationery’) and a well-stocked drinks cabinet. Bob Phillips (Jason Merrells) and Teresa Phillips (Andrea Lowe) are a lower-middle class couple with a chaotic house, a surprisingly placid off-stage baby and a tempestuous sex life. William Featherstone (Matthew Cottle) and Mary Featherstone (Gillian Wright) are repping for the respectable middle classes; he keen to climb the social ladder, she too paralysed by shyness.
You could pass a very entertaining evening watching the hilarious facial expressions of Wright alone. But why would you, with Seagrove’s coldly witty delivery to enjoy and Lowe’s fury as a woman scorned to witness. It is Le Prevost, however, who steals every scene with his General Melchett-style bluster and buffoonery.
Ayckbourn constructs How the Other Half Loves with sublime care. The action takes place in both the Fosters’ and the Phillips’ living rooms simultaneously, occupying the same space on the stage. The actors are expertly steered by Alan’s Strachan’s tight direction, moving around and past each other with convincing obliviousness, their movements are choreographed like a dance.
In this occasionally farcical play, with a dinner party from hell and more deliciously terrible gags than you can swallow, there are some salient observations. We are presented with a man’s world, structured around the men’s work and social appointments and padded to make it comfortable for their egos. Nonetheless, it is the women who orchestrate the action, manipulate each situation to their advantage and, ultimately, show up their bullying husbands as the fools they are.
Reviewed by Annabel Mellor
Photo: Alastair Muir
HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES plays at Duke of York’s Theatre until 1 October 2016. Tickets