“Er..darling. Crisis. We’re out of bathroom stationary.”
How The Other Half Loves, which has just opened at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, is 47-years-old but this retro Alan Ayckbourn comedy about marriage is just as witty and inventive as when it was written at the height of the Swinging Sixties.
It is a masterpiece of staging and it must have made the collective heads of the cast spin not to mention that of director Alan Strachan.
But it was written for another era. There are lines and scenes which are jarringly out of sync with modern thinking. At one point couple Teresa and Bob, exchange blows during a heated row. “Domestic abuse is never funny,” said my 29-year-old daughter, who sat stony-faced, while older audience members were falling about laughing.
Ayckbourn has become a generational playwright which, for whatever reason, seems to attract more fans from the mature end of the audience spectrum than younger people who see his brand of comedy as staid and old fashioned.
But his work is incredibly clever. There are few comedy writers who could come up with the sort of inventive and original stage direction Mr A dreams up for his productions. I’ve seen working swimming pools on stage and the audience invited to lounge on cushions amid a set. He regularly plays around with both space and time as though it is entirely natural.
How The Other Half Loves features a dinner party like no other. One table, two nights and meals, and one couple attending both – at the same time.
Uber posh couple Fiona and Frank Foster are upper middle class. Nicholas Le Prevost, who, as he’s matured, seems to have cornered the market in playing scatterbrained old duffers (but he does it so well), plays Frank who loves tinkering, and breaking things, around the house. He’s forgetful, whimsical, a bit of a charmer with the ladies, an utterly nice chap.
He’s also terribly forgiving, and blusters away, wondering why his wife didn’t come home for her wedding anniversary. It seems that anyone can pull the wool over his eyes, especially the terribly well-spoken Fiona (Jenny Seagrove burdened with an awful hairdo but some jolly nice costumes).
But Frank isn’t as daft as he may appear and throughout the play he gnaws away at one irritating question. Where was his wife until 3am?
Sharing the set, in beautifully choreographed synchronisation, is couple number two. Terry and Bob (Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Merrells) are struggling. She is bored, frustrated and angry at being at home all day with a baby and he is the office Romeo who has probably bitten off more than he can chew with his latest conquest.
Terry is furious that, yet again, her husband was out late. Where was he until 3am? Ooh, can we guess?
The naughty couple both use the same excuse. They were with accountant William and his wife Mary, providing a should to cry on as they struggle to keep their marriage together.
The whole thing backfires when Terry invites the couple to dinner – and so does Frank. Hence the dinner parties from Hell.
Matthew Cottle is an Ayckbourn regular and he is expert in bringing out the darker side of the dramatist’s characters. They’re usually boring, dull as dishwater, and yet there is an undertone that is occasionally menacing or threatening that bubbles under the surface and usually hidden by an innocuous smile.
William and Mary Featherstone are the couple pitched into the middle of this marriage crisis comedy and they are about the most complicated characters in the whole play.
Superficially bland in the extreme, Mary is a mouse, terrified of committing a faux pas in company. She quakes at the thought of sherry and making polite conversation (though it’s satisfying to see her eventually develop teeth – and pride).
Gillian Wright’s permanently terrified expression and timid demeanour causes much merriment until we realise why she is so downtrodden.
The ingratiating William has an annoying habit of slapping his wife’s hand to stop her biting her nails. You don’t think anything of it at first but we soon discover that he’s a bully who is not adverse to hitting his wife if she steps out of line.
Ayckbourn triumphs at mixing dark with light and what starts out as a near farce is actually a far more complex reflection of society.
Nicholas Le Prevost is one of this country’s greatest sitcom stars. True, he’s now being typecast, but it is a character that he has made his own. He splutters and bumbles through, seemingly the benign cuckolded husband, but it’s a hoot to watch and he is very much the star of this riotous affair.
Jenny Seagrove’s Fiona is top drawer totty who serves avocado and a dry one-liner at dinner. She’s the seemingly perfect, if terminally bored, housewife and hostess – and she plays it terribly well.
Merrells and Outhwaite make a sizzling couple who can’t live with each other but can’t cope without (though, randy as Bob is, I can’t see the uppity Fiona falling for him in any way, shape or form).
Strachan has crafted a hilarious revival. A story written in the promiscuous ’60s but still relevant today.
How The Other Half Loves runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until June 25.
How The Other Half Loves
Alan Ayckbourn's 1969 farcical comedy, How The Other Half Loves, is a masterpiece of inventive staging, clever dialogue, hilarious situations and immaculate timing.