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How the Other Half Loves

17 October 2017

Keeping the right time?

How the Other Half Loves

by Alan Ayckbourn

Bill Kenwright at Richmond Theatre until 21st October

Review by Matthew Grierson 

 How the Other Half Loves, playing at the Richmond Theatre until Saturday, opens with the sight of Robert Daws as Frank Foster, gamely if effortfully limbering up in a tracksuit – and I couldn’t help but wonder whether director Alan Strachan was likewise attempting to restore vigour to a jolly old form.

The whole affair is certainly carried off with the energy and agility to which Frank aspires.  That agility is essential when the main conceit of the play is that two households, both alike in indignity, occupy the same space onstage while going about their distinct but linked lives.  The technical feat of having two couples so physically close all the time without exhibiting any sense of one another offers a number of physical treats throughout the play: not least among these is the simultaneous search for a lost shoe and a lost screwdriver, whose joyous truth about domestic life the play elsewhere strains to achieve.  Similarly, we know that Fiona Foster (Caroline Langrishe) and Bob Phillips (Leon Ockenden) are paramours, but even standing side by side on the phone to each other, they defer what would be sexual tension into dramatic tension: when will their spouses find out?

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Adept as the actors are at not attending to one another, the play itself is at risk of ignoring us, the audience, by not inhabiting the same space.  To say that it puts gender relations into the past tense is not to say that the play’s women lack progressive qualities – Fiona smoothly maintains both her marriage and her fancy man throughout, very much a woman in control, while Bob’s wife Teresa (Charlie Brooks) is an earnest Guardian reader, frustrated in the role of housewife and keeping files on issues of the day such as chemical warfare, about which she writes forthright letters.  Even the timid Mary Featherstone – a marvellous Sara Crowe – eventually asserts authority over her husband William (Matthew Cottle) by extracting a well-deserved apology from him.

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There is a darker seam to the play, though, in the threat of domestic violence that erupts in the fight between Bob and Teresa at the end of the first act, and, in the second, in the ominous way Bob snaps his belt at Mary to get her into the kitchen and the mistaken William raises his monkey wrench to his wife.  The logic of the play needs these to be comic rather than shocking moments, but violence against women should never have been a laughing matter, and skews our reception of the play today.  Strachan discharges these threats adroitly by showing that physical intensity is part of Bob and Teresa’s relationship, particularly at its passionate reconciliation, and having William set down his tool at the crucial moment to administer the limpest of slaps to Mary’s wrist.  But it is touch and go.

Perhaps this demonstrates the distance we have come in 50 years.  When Bob criticises Teresa’s “grim nostalgia” in hanging on to an old corn flakes’ packet, it resonates with the production’s own act of grim nostalgia for the less than savoury qualities of the time; at least it reminds us that the 60s wasn’t all smart design and pop hits, like those used in the production.  But while episodes of domestic violence can no longer earn the laughs they may have been written to provoke, we do feel at ease laughing at the Featherstones’ awkward moments at the consecutive dinner parties they attend simultaneously; just a few years later, in contrast, we very much have to feel the embarrassment of Beverly’s soirée in Abigail’s Party.  Because we aren’t invited to share the pain of Ayckbourn’s characters, his class commentary never quite lands.  His idea of the working class remains an idea, one neither Ockenden nor Brooks are wholly convincing at bringing to life – certainly not when the former has to deliver lines concerning the moment “one is struck down in one’s living room”.

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So if the attitudes and style of How the Other Half Loves date it, why are we watching the play now?  There must be more to the revival than the fact that the avocado is a fad food once more, as in one of the dinner parties; or indeed that an aspirational woman named Teresa gets hold of the wrong end of the stick and makes repeated trouble for herself.

We watch it because, simply, it is so entertaining, and there is much pleasure to be taken in watching the cast successfully execute their roles as farceurs.  Any discomfort we feel arises from the fact that the piece provoking it is so polished, so otherwise enjoyable, that we want to savour exchanges between the Fosters – bandying “darlings” like old actors who’ve forgotten one another’s names – or Matthew Cottle’s struggle with a bottle, his ability to go red-faced on demand not only a ruddy marvel but foreshadowing the anger he will later display when he thinks his wife has cheated on him.  These beats show that the play moves according to its own clockwork mechanism, even though, at the time it was set, it chimed much more with its audience than it does now.

There are moments in the production that do strike us, though, and unexpectedly so.  Crowe as the put-upon Mary Featherstone gives just a tiny gasp when she goes to meet the Phillipses’ offstage baby, but that tells us so much about her life and what she has missed out on.  She and William are the squeezed middle of the play, the latter instantly deferential to his boss Frank.  And Frank, the unlikely but undoubtedly likeable moral centre of the play, is frank inasmuch as he speaks inadvertent truths, and can only sham bluff masculinity (which Bob all too readily displays) before he attempts to reconcile the couple of other couples, lining them all up on the couch as though he were Poirot about to unmask a murderer.  Yet after both physical and character comedy, he is at the centre of a truly heartbreaking moment when he clocks that Fiona is having an affair and cannot identify the man with whom she has been cuckolding him.  Daws’ display is equal parts love, frustration and despair, and it’s a pity the action has to end with him seemingly misleading himself again into an improbable entanglement with Teresa, who apparently has a sideline in psychoanalysis – or some more physical kind of therapy – of which the play has hitherto said nothing.

If the not entirely satisfying conclusion of How the Other Half Loves anticipates its popular but problematic afterlife, there is much to enjoy in what has passed – so long as we remember that it was the past.

Matthew Grierson

October 2017

Photography by Pamela Raith, courtesy of Bill Kenwright Ltd

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From → Drama, Reviews

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