Alan Ayckbourn changed domestic comedy for good – and probably for the better – when he wrote this structurally innovative class war-fare drama nearly forty years ago.
The play was a commercial hit because Robert Morley played the overbearing Frank Foster and imposed his own persona on the role, as well as inventing new lines, such as the remark that, toilet- paper wise, the house was fresh out of “bathroom stationery.”
But I have never seen a better, more bitter version than Alan Strachan’s acute and beautifully acted touring revival for the Peter Hall Company in Bath.
Technically, the play is revealed as a masterpiece of plotting and counter-presentation: the managerial Fosters and the lower status Phillips’s host two separate dinner parties on successive evenings that are shown, simultaneously, revolving around the repeat invitation to the humble working class Featherstones (Paul Kemp and Amanda Royle, both brilliant).
It is unusual for stage time to challenge the audience’s sense of narrative sequence, but How the Other Half Loves does precisely this, turning round the comic evidence to reveal the characters’ plotting and conniving.
The stage is interleaved with posh cushions and cheap chairs, impressive curtains and lesser swags, the whole picture miraculously blended by designer Paul Farnsworth into an Ideal Home exhibition of contrasted suburban homogeneity. It is shot through, too, with an elegiac sense of lost opportunity, in life as well as in love.
In the Morley role of Frank, Nicholas le Prevost gives a master class in comic timing without ever quite taking on the audience; he is such a lovely actor to watch, but you don’t feel he’s ever “putting out” to rope people in. You see his eyes once, right at the end, and a great moment that is. Otherwise, he remains intriguingly enclosed.
As a play about marriage, you sample the psychology and accidents of adultery as in no other modern play I can think of, and. Ayckbourn’s brilliant comedy flatters to deceive while seeming cosily structured and emitting more bleakness than a wet Wednesday night on Filey beach.
Characters are on the brink of a break-out., and social niceties are soon undermined by social barbarities. Paul Kemp and Amanda Royle as the “common” couple have a field day as both changeable stooges and unlikely objects of affection.
Marsha Fitzalan’s Fiona, wearing her red cocktail number with the label attached because she hasn’t decided whether to keep it or not, explains totally why Frank may not be as happy as all that, and why Richard Stacey’s testosterone-fuelled Bob (lumbered with Claudia Elmhirst’s incipiently New Age Tessa) should seek action in foreign fields. The play delights and disturbs, and is well worth catching in Bath and on tour.