Written in the first flush of success following the positive reception to Relatively Speaking, Ayckbourn’s 1969 play can be seen as slipping comfortably into that niche in the cultural life of the nation which had for some time been securely occupied by Brian Rix and his Whitehall Farces. I mean of course, popular comedy; undemanding, entertaining and justifying the price of the ticket for a good night out – the lifeblood of commercial theatre in fact.
In How The Other Half Loves, Ayckbourn is finding his feet, looking around at the landscape of the genre and working out how he can make his mark. The play’s most distinguishing feature is thus the novelty of two separate settings being both coterminous and contemporaneous.
The subject matter is standard fare: a comedy of marital infidelity without too much concern for the whys and wherefores, where the fun is had in the unwinding of the consequences of a fib that leads to confusion and mistaken identity.
Director Alan Strachan has guided his cast through the mechanics with a confident and nuanced eye. They never stray into overegging the somewhat stereotypical characters, but give each sufficient oxygen to bring them life.
The company have squeezed the comic juice out of the play with stylish performances, masterful timing and polished stagecraft. The sluggish first act is given some welcome adrenalin by the bravura application of those skills to the double dinner party that rounds it off when, in addition to the usual confusions between characters, the audience has its own to worry about as it sorts out who’s saying what to whom in the two time/space frames.
Caroline Langrishe, breezily capable and effortlessly stylish as Fiona Foster, is the model of middle class aplomb as she misdirects her husband’s inquisitiveness about her comings and goings. Her other half, Frank (Robert Daws) gives a genially befuddled cuckold with a touching concern for the marital welfare of his staff in this cleverly thought out characterisation.
Some attitudes set the play in the 60s, giving the feel of a period piece, but with enough carry-over to today to make some aspects a little unsettling. Bob Phillips (Leon Ockenden) for example, as what was beginning to be described as a ‘male chauvinist pig’ ,would not be on his own down the pub today. Bob’s wife, Teresa (Charlie Brooks) is the closest thing to a contemporary character, unwilling to meekly accept her husband’s behaviour and prepared to assert her autonomy with determination and independence of spirit. Matthew Cottle and Sarah Crowe bring delightful colour to the timid nonentities, William and Mary, who both find something resembling a spine during the course of the action.
This is Ayckbourn as you like it, with all the wit and technique you’d hope for one of the most successful playwrights of modern times. ★★★★☆ Graham Wyles at Bath Theatre Royal 3rd October 2017