How the Other Half Loves (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
Alan Ayckbourn's early farce is revived in the West End
This early farce of Alan Ayckbourn – it ran for nearly three years with Robert Morley in 1969 – is one of his most poignantly and hilariously mechanical: two couples, one posh, one less so, are embroiled in putative and probable adulterous relationships; while a third couple, common and dreary, provide alibis in each camp while playing gooseberry in the hop, skip and jump of the class war.
The centre of it always was, and is, in Alan Strachan's superb and comically attentive revival – Strachan did the last London revival, too, at Greenwich in 1988, transferring to the Duke of York's – the famous dinner party scene: two dinners, on successive nights, are played out simultaneously in adjacent, interleaving houses, with interleaving furniture.
The hapless, catalytic third party – the Featherstones, a simple minded accountant for whom nothing much adds up, and his way-out-of-her-depth wife – are guests at both fractious feasts which climax, of course, in a tureen of soup being thrown over the wrong person.
The Fosters, Frank and Fiona, are the boss class – Nicholas Le Prevost in gloriously distracted and bumbling form, a doll-like Jenny Seagrove so permanently glazed she might be on something medicinal – while the chippy, employee status Phillips's, Bob and Teresa – bovine, earthy Jason Merrells and witch-on-the-warpath Tamzin Outhwaite – are locked in marital meltdown and recriminatory "where were you last night" fist fights.
At the root of these spats, and I'd forgotten this, is the baby issue. Children never appear in Ayckbourn except as offstage handicaps to happiness. And domestic crisis in Ayckbourn, as ever, spans shortage of toilet rolls – "We're out of bathroom stationery" – to a misapplied monkey wrench, an unexpected knock at the door and a simmering sense of grievance all round. "You wouldn't believe the hours I've put into that woman," moans the accountant, pushed to the limit of his emotional endurance.
Le Prevost's Frank affects a studied indifference to the mayhem he himself has partly initiated, but there's still an underlying sense of unhappiness that might even be assuaged in a development beyond the end of the performance; for while the mathematical formula of the construction is rigidly pursued – it wouldn't be funny otherwise – there's so much texture in Ayckbourn's comic writing that the "life" of the characters leaps the bounds of the play, and the carefully considered stereotypes exceed their own outline.
There's no pretence at "updating" the period of the play which is an askance, suburban shadow of life in the permissive society, a society which is always somewhere else anyway. And instead of tweets and emails, indignant Teresa is firing off epistolary screeds to the editor of the Guardian, Mr Carrycot, while lines and wires are literally crossed in a series of furtive telephone calls conducted by people standing right next to each other at the front of the stage.
The discipline of it all is mind-bogglingly well maintained, even with Cottle's Featherstone administering friendly little slaps to his wife in between her bemused participation in another man's fantasy and her endless repertoire of submissive smirks and incipient curtsies; Gillian Wright presents this amalgam of well-meaning nods and terrified tics with a deadly, chilling accuracy, wearing clothes that defy description in their garish awfulness.
She is the "beg pardon" to Outhwaite's tempestuous belch of a performance, while Le Prevost, head on a permanent tilt, jaw locked against too uncontrolled a profusion of speech, does some of the most delightful fidgeting in socks and slippers this side of Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern. This is a triumphant return of an outstanding farce: vintage Ayckbourn, classic production.
How the Other Half Loves runs at the Haymarket Theatre until 25 June