FringeReview UK 2017
Bill Kenwright Productions revives its 2016 Duke of York run of Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves with this mostly-recast touring one. This 1969 comedy, directed by Alan Strachan for the third time, is he claims one of the few plays he admits he never tires of. Julie Godfrey neatly creates a very solid grand set, littering the other half’s lifestyle in the foreground. Jason Taylor’s lighting, gently naturalistic, shifts mornings and evenings like a mood. Dan Samson’s sound bleeds the mid-Sixties into an era where such songs were enjoyed as nostalgia.
Enter the Master. For the third time Alan Strachan directs Ayckbourn’s 1969 How the Other Half Loves – one of the few plays he admits he never tires of – in this touring revival with Bill Kenwright Productions now arriving at Theatre Royal Brighton.
It’s a reprise of the successful 2016 run at the Duke of York’s (where it was first revived by Strachan in 1988). It was superb in 2016; it’s even finer now. Quickly shorn of production elements in its initial run that had How the Other Half Loves initially mistaken for a farce with Ayckbourn a harmless farceur, its true brilliance and dark social undertones blaze ever more brightly. Don’t think of missing it.
You can’t miss the conceptual brilliance with curtain-up. Julie Godfrey neatly creates a very solid grand set, littering the other half’s lifestyle in the foreground. There’s alternating wall panels where the ‘other’ half’s eggshell blue twice interrupts the golden sumptuousness of the older couple; and even a settee whose sections shift identity, either two-thirds posh and one third just-about-coping to the opposite. Finally two telephones sit side by side, which is where we start. Jason Taylor’s lighting, gently naturalistic, shifts mornings and evenings like a mood. Dan Samson’s sound bleeds the mid-Sixties into an era where such songs were enjoyed as nostalgia.
The extraordinary deftness with which characters play two spaces in one oblivious of each other is one of the joys of this transitional masterpiece. The comfortable older Fosters and aspiring Phillips duo jostle in the same space, and verbal parallels lob words from one couple to another, with a gentle plock over an invisible net.
Even more joyful is the way the Featherstones invited on successive nights to dinner through a misunderstanding, react so clearly: to either the Fosters or in a beat the Phillips, and back again whist transmitting so clearly their different register to each.
If 1965’s Relatively Speaking shows how polite unspoken misunderstanding breeds farce, How the Other Half Loves develops this along parallels that presages Ayckbourn’s 1972 Absurd Person Singular where two couples are catalysed by the uncomprehending actions of another, each from a subtly different middle class. Those three kinds – squirearchical, young professional, accountant-handyman – appear in this play first. The Fosters and Phillips aren’t as far apart though as they are from the Featherstones, who serve as lightning rod and live Bunbury in one.
In the almost hapless Featherstones, particularly in William, we can glimpse the doggedly go-getting Sidney Hopcroft of the later dark comedy, here brought out blissfully by Matthew Cottle’s curious mix of willingness to please and sheer servile deference (to Frank) with an inability to apologise to the wife he controls with a ritual smack, as if she’s more than socially embarrassing. Cottle, the one survivor from the 2016 run, shines amidst the new company: even his servile rigidity slots more neatly into place.
Privileged Fiona Foster (Caroline Langrishe) tiring of complacent Frank (Robert Daws) has turned to laddish Bob Phillips (Leon Ockenden), whose wife Teresa suspects something already. The two couples’ lives as we’ve seen unfold in parallel, often bouncing off each other’s mores like commentaries: for instance how what each drinks exposes the other’s pretensions.
Fiona’s advised by Bob that the best alibi for their late tryst is to invoke the Featherstones, William being a colleague Bob and Frank barely know, and pretend each spouse is undergoing a crisis that Fiona or Bob’s attending to. Each of their spouses however think it a good idea to invite the unwitting Featherstones on two sequent nights to dinner and counselling, both of which evenings in the breakthrough second act, are played simultaneously. The Phillips’ table bisects the Fosters’ grander one at right angles. Nothing like this can have been seen on stage before.
There’s a wonderful moment when William, considering a question, takes a full half-minute to answer… ‘no’. Is the nasally-gazing Cottle even longer in his pause here than formerly, or is it just even funnier? The greatest coup and laughter’s the way William is accidentally soaked by wine the furious Teresa throws, now certain of her husband’s adultery. In parallel – though chronologically on the next night – William’s been fixing the cistern at the Fosters, and you double-take when Frank in another beat notices how wet William is: the toilet has leaked directly over him. It’s stunning craftsmanship. At thirty, the Master has arrived.
Langrishe is crisply consummate in the grand manner with a sparkling turn and look that makes her an ideal Fiona. Her timing, a look of boredom as she finally acknowledges the anniversary gift when she’s wholly forgotten it herself, is delicious: Langrishe delivers an insouciant boredom and feline cunning that snaps shut every time she has to turn on an old sixpence. There’s three moments when she assumes all is known and makes to confess. Just as good are her reactions to a mewling and puking baby, twice aggressively parked in a wheeled Karrimor outside by Teresa, like a tank on her lawn.
Daws’ R-rolling baritonal de haut en bas here aptly conveys the shell of command without the comprehension to go with it, partly suggested by hopeless DIYing and Frank’s old-fashioned insistence on paternalist intervention over his subordinates. He’s wonderfully buffer-ish; look carefully between fits of laughter and you’ll see how detailed his performance is.
Sara Crowe’s slow worm-turning performance as the literally put-upon Mary brings the most unexpected denouement and by a fluky irony, the Featherstones’ marriage is indeed transformed, albeit quietly. Crowe’s strangulated mix of embarrassment, fear and suppressed rage is funnelled through a concentrated shudder. She’d steal the show were the whole ensemble not so blissfully fine.
Charlie Brooks’ Teresa is both stressed and underneath, sexually and above all intellectually frustrated: in period parlance, she’s married beneath her, sexually charmed you feel, by a chipper little bully. Owning a copy of Britten’s still-fresh War Requiem, she writes letters on chemical warfare, feminism and contraception to the Guardian editors but is never published. Her husband Bob’s not interested in a baby-bound, life-cluttered wife: he nags insufferably about mess in the way William does.
The Phillips’ somehow wish to survive all Bob’s flings and their essential amorousness is avidly brought out. You literally see times are changing though. Brooks is not only volatile, you feel at the end she might branch out sexually and most of all personally. Starting out frustrated and sexually shelved, Brooks’ voltage and quick sympathy act as foil to Ockenden’s cocksure little rooster, a man still preternaturally able to spot a doormat; just as much of a bully as Featherstone if more sexually charming. Ockenden’s Bob is indeed sexy, lithe, a tad dangerous when crossed, as well as insufferably arrogant. His treatment of Teresa and Crowe’s Mary is cringingly good. He deserves his black eye as much as Featherstone his bash on the head and sewage-soaking. Ayckbourn’s palpable pro-feminist leanings hit you more softly, but keep on hitting you.
The same options are lent to Frank and Fiona, where knowledge enacts a liberation far quieter than the obvious sexual one raging all around 1969. Ayckbourn’s genius is to show how it’s possible with unlikely people, and thus how far the revolutions have as it were penetrated. Strachan’s brilliance is so complete, so identified with this particular play, you forget how superbly founded it is.