Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Theatre review: How The Other Half Loves

It's a phenomenon that's already certain to turn up in my theatrical memes of the year, and one nobody will be looking back on fondly: Theatres' insistence on programming long shows without an early start time to compensate for it. Adding its name to the National, Almeida and, worst offender, the Old Vic, the Theatre Royal Haymarket joins in with what seems almost spiteful scheduling: At just over two and a half hours, How The Other Half Loves is just longer-than-average rather than an epic, but an inexplicable 7:45pm start time makes sure nobody gets home before 11pm - if they're lucky. That unwelcome slice of 2016 aside, it's like any other year: If it's spring there must be an Alan Ayckbourn revival somewhere, and Memorable Actor Matthew Cottle must be in it. Vanessa loves Ayckbourn so she always gets an early birthday present she'll like, even if my own feelings about his work are more variable.

We're going pretty far into the playwright's back catalogue for this, one of his comedies with a narrative twist, that in this instance sees Julie Godfrey's set smash together two very different living rooms, belonging to very different couples. In the first, third and fourth acts, this is used to show scenes that play out simultaneously in the chaotic house of Bob (Jason Merrells) and Terri (Tamzin Outhwaite,) and the pristine upper-middle-class home of Bob's boss Frank (Nicholas Le Prevost.) A lot of whispered phone conversations take place between the two houses as Bob is having an affair with Frank's wife Fiona (Jenny Seagrove.) As the play begins they're trying to come up with an alibi for having stayed out until 3am the previous night, and settle on a story involving a third colleague, William (Cottle,) who they assume is too obscure for anyone to check with.

These parallel scenes are cleverly done but the real heart of the play is in the second act, when both spouses invite William and his wife Mary (Gillian Wright
) to dinner on successive nights. Instead of playing out in real time we now get both dinner parties on stage simultaneously, with Cottle and Wright swiveling on their chairs between tables - one very polite affair as Frank remains oblivious, the next night a fiasco as Terri has cottoned on, Outhwaite convincing as a furious wife whose husband's cheated on her.

There's a lot that's uncomfortably of its time about How The Other Half Loves and its attitude to the sexes - I'm pretty sure we're meant to be judgmental of Terri's housekeeping skills, and there's that old "favourite" - a male playwright having a female character say that if her husband really loved her he'd have slapped her about a bit. Fortunately the comedy hasn't dated as badly: I think I get on better with the high-concept Ayckbourns as they've retained their freshness more than his more traditional sitcoms, and there's no question the dinner-party scene is expertly done and genuinely laugh-out-loud (this is apparently Alan Strachan's third time directing the play, so he should know what he's doing with it by now.)

Although it's not as good as Noises Off, How The Other Half Loves does share a big problem with that play in that it blows its best scene in the second act; in this case there's still a whole hour left to go after the interval, and although well-done it has no chance of matching up to it. But there's still fun to be had, particularly from Le Prevost and Wright, both perfect as, respectively, a fount of silly non-sequiturs and a mousy woman trying to come out of her shell. Just a shame that, in a play whose characters get into trouble for staying out late, the theatre has determined that the audience should do the same.

How The Other Half Loves by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 25th of June at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

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