How The Other Half Loves, Bath Theatre Royal and touring

THIS is one of those “clever trick” plays which make up an ever-increasing part of Alan Ayckbourn’s work.

There are plays that run concurrently on two stages, plays set on three different floors, all staged at the same level, plays that move forward and backward in time, and so on. The clever trick in this play is that two living rooms are on stage together, with action happening at the same time in both, and for the second scene, two dinner parties, actually on successive evenings, happen simultaneously. One couple is at both dinner parties, giving plenty of opportunity for some great physical comedy.

Ayckbourn has been crafting these wonderful plays for almost sixty years, with his 81st currently playing at his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough. It is a daunting thought that I have seen more of his plays than Shakespeare’s and I have seen almost every one of the Bard’s. How The Other Half Loves is one of the earlier plays, and one I have never seen before, so it was a delight to be able to see it locally, with the national tour stopping at Bath this week. My only concern was that that the cast is full of “names” that most people know from the television, but that concern vanished within minutes of the start, such was the tight direction and acting talent of the players.

Ayckbourn himself has regularly said that his plays work best when played for truth, for reality, and this team really know how to do it, almost to the level of Wimborne-based Dramatic Productions, but they do have a harder job to do, overcoming existing memories of characters they are famous for playing. Some of our finest situation comedy stars began their professional lives in local repertory and tours of Ayckbourn, before populating The Good Life and other such TV hits, so it is good to see the reverse happening, with soaps, or “continuing dramas” providing the seed beds for professional tours, and hopefully bringing in an audience for them. I knew five of the six of tonight’s cast from their on screen work, from Lovejoy, Eastenders, Game On, a cream cheese commercial, and various other programmes, but every one of the six established their character from their first line, lived the part as if it were really happening, and gave us a performance that left us feeling for them and worrying about their survival. It is too easy to play this material solely for laughs, but this company stay true to the work, with a natural trust for each other, and I believe this production shows how Ayckbourn would like his plays to be seen.

The set-up of this play has one half of two couples in an affair, and a third couple who are used, unknowingly, as an alibi. It is this third couple, the Featherstones, which gives Matthew Cottle and Sarah Crowe such great opportunity in the second scene, as they attend the two consecutive dinner parties concurrently. They do it with such style, and of course the other actors allow for it with such subtlety, that we are in hysterics watching the mechanics of a hot plate being thrown around the table while feeling the angst and pathos of what unfolds through the same scene, as none of the couples seem able to survive.

Robert Daws and Caroline Langrishe play the older couple, with Langrishe’s perfectly middle-class Fiona delighting in her affair with the younger Bob, played with rugged charm and oafishness by Leon Ockendon who works in her husband’s office.  Daws as Frank is barely aware of anything that is happening, and he is completely believable in his vagueness and confusion, keeping his character accurate and never quite slipping into caricature. Likewise, Bob’s wife Teresa, played by Charlie Brooks, is completely unaware of her husband’s affair, and she, along with Frank, spends much of the play believing that it is the Featherstones who have the marital problems. As I keep saying, the comedy in this play is made all the funnier the more truthful and realistic the acting, and this bunch, directed with a great eye for detail by Alan Strachan, are all experts at this.

Go and see this if you can – you will be laughing at things you would not normally laugh at, while crying inside at the situation on stage, such is the paradox of this man’s writing and the talent of these players. It’s at Bath until the end of the week, and touring until the beginning of December.


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