Alan Ayckbourn was just 30 when he created How the Other Half Loves. But, while this was to be only the second of his now extensive canon to reach the West End, he'd already been honing his art for a decade among friends in his beloved Scarborough.
Ayckbourn confesses to rushing the play's writing. He'd promised Scarborough a new comedy and, with only weeks to go, nothing was written, so it was bashed out within a few marathon sessions. Of course, you'd never know it: Ayckbourn's extraordinarily complex piece of stagecraft went on to become his first smash on Broadway. Almost 35 years later, Mark Piper's new touring production for the Theatre Royal, Windsor and Churchill Theatre, Bromley, feels every bit as fresh.
Farce is a theatre form that's become a British institution, but Ayckbourn effortlessly turns it into an art form. And Piper calls on two Ayckbourn specialists to bring it back to the stage. John Challis and Sue Holderness have been appearing together for the past two years in two more of the master's classics - Relatively Speaking and Time and Time Again - and have the formula absolutely taped.
Here, Challis is Frank Foster, a gormless company director who relies on his wife Fiona (Holderness) to get him through the day in one piece. Fiona needs rather more out of life than playing nursemaid so embarks on an ill-advised dalliance with one of her husband's employees, Bob Phillips (Gary Turner). Bob in turn is married to the similarly socially inept Terri (Carli Norris) - who's finding it hard going being a full-time mum to a hyperactive toddler - and is insensitive enough to just abandon her as he sees fit.
In order to cover up their indiscretion, the lovers implicate fellow employee William Featherstone (Richard Kane), as an unlikely Lothario, not accounting for their spouses desire to see right prevail between William and his mousy wife Mary (Lavinia Bertram). Cue the obligatory round of mistaken identity, mistaken situation and endless confusion.
What makes this show such a delight is that all the action is going on simultaneously on a set representing both the Foster and Phillips households. Julie Godfrey's design is just wonderful, with the two "homes" literally cut into each other. Half a sofa is blue, the other half biege; toddler's drawings share the walls with elegant watercolours; and formica and walnut mingle in the dining rooms. (Watch out for the dinner parties, in which the Featherstones switch from one to the other simply by twisting in their seats.)
But the ploy's success owes to much more than clever design, requiring huge concentration from the cast. Even the minutiae, like replacing a cup on the right section of the coffee table, are rigidly observed. While Challis and Holderness are the undoubted stars, the remaining quartet provide strong support.
A really enjoyable night out all round.
- John Lawson (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich)