Rather like his recently revived Relatively Speaking, Alan Ayckbourn’s play is a farcical look at an affair and the tortured results of covering it up. The intricate web of lies lead, inevitably, to a whole raft of misunderstandings. Written five years later, How the Other Half Loves is almost experimental in the way both time and space are sliced and diced. One couple are seen eating a meal on two separate nights, with two sets of hosts, and the action flicks back and forth between the evenings. But this isn’t just showing off: it demonstrates with a heightened immediacy the way people behave in different circumstances. Or, to be brutal, how they behave to their social betters versus their social inferiors.
Bob Phillips (Leon Ockenden) is having an affair with Fiona Foster (Caroline Langrishe), the wife of his boss Frank (Robert Daws). As a cover story Fiona has said she was counselling Mary Featherstone (Sara Crowe), in a crisis due to her husband William (Matthew Cottle) having an affair. Coincidentally Bob’s covering story for his wife Teresa (Charlie Brooks) involves a drinking session with William who, he claims, is in a state due his wife cheating on him.
Ayckbourn is, of course, a master of plotting. And the mechanism of the plot is very finely crafted indeed. But the play isn’t just about making its cast jump through hoops: it’s perhaps finer that Relatively in the that it makes you feel for its characters. Mary ‘the mouse’ is, in some respects, a comic stereotype yet Crowe’s wounded dignity when she demands an apology from her husband is quietly heartbreaking.
The writer casts something of a jaundiced eye over everyone. Cottle’s William is toe-curlingly servile to his boss. But worse than that is his treatment of Mary, a woman who he believes he has made – he’s bettered her by introducing her to non-fiction works of literature, classical music and less awful clothes. In his idea of art and culture he bears more than a passing resemblance to Laurence Moss in Abigail’s Party with his leather-bound, yet steadfastly unread, Shakespeare.
There’s something pleasingly retro about the acting – especially in the depiction of classic English types which, presumably, no longer exist. Ockenden does lairy youth in a way which would give Robin Askwith a run for his money; Langrishe has the condescending grace of Penelope Keith and Daws is little short of magnificent as the upper management bod whose basic decency doesn’t prevent him from being a fool. Brooks’ Teresa is slightly harder to place – but her Guardian reading and love of Benjamin Britten imply a woman rebelling against middle-class respectability by marrying a member of the lower orders.
My one slight quibble is that the twist which ends the play doesn’t really make much sense. Despite this minor problem, Other Half is an example of Ayckbourn at his best.
Continues until Saturday 25 at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.
For more details and tickets click here.