Forty years ago Alan Ayckbourn had had one huge commercial success with Relatively Speaking and a number of modest successes and not-quite-failures. How the Other Half Loves proved to be the difficult second triumph that cemented his reputation as a playwright. Now, in his return to the Stephen Joseph Theatre as guest director, he revisits the play for the first time.
Compared with the best of later Ayckbourn, the plotting of How the Other Half Loves now seems a touch contrived, the characters veering towards caricature. Much else, though, is firmly in place: the verbal wit, the bounding invention, the willingness to make non-judgemental comedy from deeply unpleasant people, the cuckoo-clock precision, the self-imposed technical challenge. In this case, it’s not two simultaneous plays in adjacent theatres or 32 (or maybe 64) plays from one situation, but two dinner parties with different hosts and the same guests on different nights which are played with mounting synchronicity.
The plot grows from one act of deception. Bob Phillips is pursuing a relationship with Fiona who is married to his boss, Frank Foster. The morning after an early hours drunken return home, Bob and Fiona lie that they spent the time listening to the troubles of, respectively, William and Mary, a young married couple whom they hardly know, though William is about to join Frank’s department at work. Teresa, Bob’s wife, arranges a dinner party to help William with his cheating wife, while Frank, welcoming the new member of his team, is unable to avoid consoling Mary for her errant husband! From here it’s a swift slide into a morass of misunderstanding.
Theo Cross, as the charmlessly conceited Bob, and Rosie Jenkins, his desperately neurotic wife whose all-embracing conscience never extends as far as her own responsibilities, nobly resist any temptation to be likeable. Marilyn Cutts as Fiona parades her comparative sophistication as a charm against ageing, and tends with over-strained patience to her bumbling husband (Robert Austin).
The role of Frank was played in the initial London production by Robert Morley who doubtless surpassed Austin in the comedy of pomposity and personality, but, I suspect, without his humanity and innocent bemusement, plus his skill as an ensemble player. As William and Mary, a sort of parallel to Nick and Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with two sets of hosts to contend with, Anna Lowe’s mousy Scots wife finds all the shades of timidity, while Ian McLarnon’s dominating, but equally gauche, husband is as shocking in his lack of awareness as any Mike Leigh misfit.
Alan Ayckbourn’s direction is a masterclass in concealed precision and Jan Bee Brown’s versatile set effortlessly conflates different times and places.