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Manchester theatre reviews

How the Other Half Loves

How the Other Half Loves

by Alan Ayckbourn at Lowry, Salford

Reviewed by John Waterhouse September 2017


How the other half loves is one of the best known and most performed of the 70 plus (and counting!) plays written by Alan Ayckbourn, and as with so many of his works, it uses the device of interrelating three couples in broadly middle-class surroundings. Having opened in the West End in 1970, this play is not so much dated as a time capsule both of early 70’s life and attitudes, as well the kind of issues upon which comedy was typically then based.


Ayckbourn is well known for giving set builders headaches - think of the self-collapsing chest of drawers in Bedroom Farce or parts of three rooms on different levels in The things we do for love. With this play, two houses have to merge into each and the set at the Lowry carried this through quite magnificently, with all-round stage sections alternating from the early 70’s tack in a small semi to impressive mock-regency, even carried through with the overhead lighting and furniture, so that Bob Phillip’s modest dwelling contrasts sharply with his boss Frank Foster’s prestige home.


The social divide, of course mirrored through the characters, is brought to a head through their respective ideas of what constitutes a dinner party and it is this divide which adds emphasis to the driving premise of the story - a secret affair between Bob and his boss’s wife Fiona, not quite the posh lady going for ‘a bit of rough’ but almost. Class was more of an issue fifty years ago and whilst hardly a social commentary, this play does provide many interesting insights into divisions across the income spectrums, evidenced by Fiona and Teresa’s dress sense (elegant Fiona would never be seen in white boots and a short skirt!) and even their shopping lists; essentially a contrast between Avocado and Baked Beans.


How the Other Half LovesOften with an Ayckbourn play, the basic story is to be introduced to three couples in seemingly happy relationships, and then for us to watch them all steadily disintegrate. In How the Other Half Loves, the cracks are there in the two lead couples’ relationships right from the outset, with Fiona forgetting her wedding anniversary and Bob’s wife Teresa at her wits end with her insensitive husband. The third couple, William and Mary, as mutual friends to both the others inadvertently bring everything to a climax and naturally they are not without issues of their own.


After a slow start, the play builds steadily to a satisfying climax at the end of the first act, and the pace is carried through in a knock-about way throughout the second half, climaxing with for me, a very funny and imaginative ending. If people never had extra-marital affairs, Alan Ayckbourn’s entire lifetime output would probably have been at least halved and affairs (both real and imagined) are essentially all that this play is about. It has to be remembered that divorce was much less common half a century ago so affairs had the potential to be much more devastating back then. There was also so much more emphasis on keeping up appearances; just think how many famous people went to great lengths to hide being gay, second and third marriages were viewed by many as the prerogative of pop stars and actors whilst Royalty just simply did not get divorced!


A complicated and fast-moving play like this cannot effectively be performed without a good cast and the company at the Lowry were quite excellent. Robert Daws as Frank Foster, best known for the hit series 'The Royal', led the charge with a superbly upright but befuddled performance, perfectly complemented by Caroline Langrishe as the capricious Fiona. Leon Ockenden and Charlie Brooks both brought tremendous energy to their roles, giving very physical performances in sharp contrast to their more sedate friends. However, credit must be given to Sara Crowe and Matthew Cottle who as the couple William and Mary Featherstone, provided an excellent foil for the others to jar against. Effectively ‘the straight man’ in the threesome, much of the comedy came from their bewilderment against the brashness of Bob and Fiona or austere dignity of Fiona and Frank.


Provided you can get into a 1970’s mind-set for the evening, How the Other Half Loves is a funny and engaging play, superbly performed and in a set that oozes the period (right down to the tacky wall-paper and Formica coffee table).


How the Other Half Loves is on at the Lowry until Saturday 16th September.

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