ALAN Ayckbourn is as popular as he is prolific, so it’s no great surprise, as a reviewer, to see two of his plays in quick succession. An interesting contrast, though, as the productions (both excellent) are his first big success Relatively Speaking, which was at Bath, and How The Other Half Loves, at Salisbury Playhouse, until 4th March.
Both plays are now more than 50 years old, and in very different ways reflect the attitudes and fashions of the time. However, Relatively Speaking has a plot that is essentially timeless, whereas How The Other Half Loves is set firmly in its period.
It was a time when avocados were newly fashionable on the dining tables of the aspirational middle classes, when dinner parties had their own etiquette – equal numbers of men and women, sherry before the meal and a reciprocal invitation to follow with the thank-you letter.
Director Gareth Machin has wisely chosen to set his production squarely (even that word comes laden with period colour!) in the early 70s. And his cast play their parts to the full – starting with the two central couples.
Philip Bretherton is middle manager Frank Foster, a man who has risen more by virtue of his perfect elocution, well-cut suits and assumption of social superiority than any actual ability. Sherry Baines plays his (understandably) bored, glamorous wife, Fiona. Haydn Oakley is Bob Phillips, Fiona’s improbable one-night-stand, who is a tier below Frank in the same department, a rough diamond but no fool. And Joanna van Kampen plays his wife Terry, apparently a depressed and rather slovenly new mother, but concealing a seething mass of emotions about inequality (of the sexes and the social classes).
Then there are the Featherstones – hapless victims of Fiona and Bob’s cover-up stories, trying to answer their respective spouses’ questions about why neither got home until two in the morning.
Sam Alexander is hilarious as that all-too-recognisable figure, the up and coming junior manager in a cheap suit, a servile cipher newly promoted to Frank’s department, but a bully to his quiet, nervous wife, Mary.
In many ways, Rebecca Cooper has the best part, because she is given the most character development, and in the process emerges as quite the nicest of the six.
The set, by Michael Taylor, fully meets Ayckbourn’s typically complex demands – two houses, each including front doors and doors to the rest of the house, two sitting rooms and two dining rooms.
As is often the case with Ayckbourn, the set is almost a character in its own right, never more so than during the two dinner parties, taking place on consecutive nights (Thursday at the Fosters, Friday at the Phillipses) but simultaneously on stage. The dining table doubles for both houses, with contrasting table settings – the unfortunate Featherstones sit at the table, conversing with one or other of their hosts, their heads swinging back and forth like Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her!
Ayckbourn does social comedy rather than farce – How The Other Half Loves is probably the closest he gets to traditional farce (but without the requisite dropped trousers!). It is laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes excruciatingly so.
It is also a clever satire on social class and how something as simple as an avocado or a newspaper letters column can become a weapon in the artillery of married life.
This production of How The Other Half Loves is the third at the Playhouse – the first was 50 years ago, in 1973. It still packs a hilarious punch.
Photographs by The Other Richard.