Review by Sam Waite
Prolific and with a longevity yet to run out, Alan Ayckbourn will have his 89th play open in September 2023 – his 9th, and his 3rd to have graced a West End stage, has opened at the scenic Mill at Sonning, where a hearty meal can be enjoyed before the audience in taken back to the early 70’s. How The Other Half Loves owes nods to class discrepancy and shifts in traditional values to its being written in the late 1960’s, but this farce owes much of its comedic charms to the age old inability of fictional characters to simply ask and answer the right questions.
Three couples populate the dual living rooms of the inventive set – Michael Holt has a single room presented as both the working class house of the Phillips’, and the more grand home of the Fosters’, with a sectioned sofa and table representing part of each couple’s furnishings. Holt has also adorned the back wall, and connected doorways, with differing touches, such as a more stereotypically 70’s wallpaper in the Phillips household while an elegant green paint job with white trims represents the Fosters’ grand hallway. The effect helps to establish the setting from the offset, and leads to some wonderful chances at comedic comparison between the pairs.
Bob Phillips and Fiona Foster have spent an intimate evening together (perhaps more than once), and in a moment of panic have both claimed to have spent the night consoling a member of the third couple. Mr and Mrs Featherstone are both claimed to be the victims of adultery, and as such Bob and Fiona’s spouses take it upon themselves to arrange to have the two for dinner, much the dismay of the real cheaters. This leads, as you might imagine, to misinterpretations and an eventual realisation of the truth… or at least a wildly, and hilariously, warped version of events causing characters to come to blows.
Stuart Fox is an immediate standout as ever-forgetful businessman Frank Foster, bringing such a delightful energy to his tangents and misunderstandings that the possibility of their frequency becoming tiresome is virtually null. Opposite him, Julia Hills brings an increasing sense of sombreness to Fiona, such that we do begin to understand not only why she would begin an affair, but also why she still so deeply cares for a husband who can't hold a conversation without multiple distractions. Both are also very funny, bouncing off of each other as two distinctly different takes on the lives of the slightly more wealthy.
Ruth Gibson’s performance as Teresa Phillips is dripping with working class disdain – for her situation, her husband, and on occasion their young (and never see ) child. Her cracks at Bob border on venomous at times, but a biting delivery from Gibson that is well-performed but can undercut the humour of their bickering. As Bob, Damien Matthews is suitably droll in his side of the ever-running argument, and leans into playing the smug, self-serving louse when called for. Both are fine actors, but whether due to their choices, the direction from Robin Herford, or the age of Ayckbourn’s text and changing values around marriage, it's not as easy to understand why these two stay together as it is with their older, more refined counterparts.
The final couple are played by Ben Porter and Emily Pithon, as the unwitting subject of the play’s gossip and scheming. Porter is a charming husband and colleague, and does well with the continued confusions and poorly-translated explanations, including some wonderful (if brief) stage fighting in the second act. However, Pithon joins Stuart Fox as a highlight of the production, making anything Mary Featherstone’s husband does secondary to her hysterical arc. Between her wide-eyed and openly stunned reactions, excellent comedic timing with her anxious bumbling in conversation, and a strong, sustained scream toward’s the finale, she threatens to steal the entire show.
Herford’s direction is strong in the movement and placement of his actors – even with less clear visual clues his blocking would make it clear which house each character is entering, and which of two simultaneously-shown dinner parties the Featherstones are being mortified by his colleagues’ behaviour. As mentioned, Herford may be part of the issue that is the Phillips’ longstanding affection being difficult to buy, but it's not for me to lay blame for such things.
An awkward element of the show, born from necessity but not handled particularly elegantly, is the mid-act redressing of the set. In moving from the two living rooms to their respective dining rooms, furnishings are brought in, taken away, or moved about the stage. Unfortunately, this happens in a dimmed auditorium with the cast offstage, and tech crew visibly hauling things to-and-fro. While this does serve an important purpose, there is an awkwardness in the aesthetics of the moment, the sudden detachment from the world of the text, and of the length that act one’s change, in particular, seems to cover.
When not dimmed for this purpose, a simple lighting design is employed to great effect by Matthew Biss. With lights becoming brighter on stage in time with curtains and blinds being opened, the time of day and the realism of these tiny moments of movement become significant and easy to follow. Costumes, designed by Natalie Titchener, also help to establish the world, with the social classes and standard lifestyles of the characters being apparent even by their choice in sleepwear.
Visually striking, if slightly dated and with some shaky execution, How The Other Half Loves is still a very funny play with timeless themes of marital strife that will resonate even with those of us wondering how some of these couples ever put up with each other. Ayckbourn’s writing is as sharp as ever, and between the chance to have a good meal, visit a historic venue, and glimpse into the earlier stages of an illustrious career, there is still much to be loved.
How The Other Half Loves plays at The Mill at Sonning until September 23rd.
For tickets and information visit https://millatsonning.com/shows/how-the-other-half-loves/
Photos by Andreas Lambis