Sometimes you just want to sit back, have a laugh, and feel secure. Like revelling in favourite 90s sitcoms of yore (to each their own, but I’m talking Mad About You or Dharma & Greg), the theatre of Alan Ayckbourn plays to those same sentiments. You know what you are going to get before the curtain rises (yes, of course there is a curtain), and you can rest assured very few real surprises will be behind those slamming doors. Miscommunication + stock characters + further complications + a bit of British innuendo = ‘Hilarity ensues’! (Personally I’d include a mid-show glass of wine in the equation).
How the Other Half Loves is a highly theatrical farce that slices in half the homes of the lux Fiona and Frank Foster (Jenny Seagrove and Nicholas Le Prevost) and the more modest (and mod) Teresa and Bob Phillips (Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Merrells). When Frank and Teresa become suspicious of their respective spouses’ whereabouts, both Fiona and Bob rely on the boring William and Mary Featherstone (Matthew Cottle and Gillian Wright) as their tried-but-not-tested alibi. What results is two dinner parties, one on Thursday and one on Friday (but in true Ayckbourn style they happen on stage at the same time) where Mary and Bob are increasingly confused by their host’s motives and everything unravels as… I’m sure you get the gist.
It is clever and it is very funny. Ayckbourn is so good at what he does, you can see why in 1969 he had the guts to advertise the first production of the show before he had even written the script. He is constantly inventive within the set formula and creates new and entertaining patterns which successfully elicit that collective ‘gasp’, as the audience realises that he’s going to think that she’s sleeping with him when actually she’s only there to help clean up! The twists are enticing but pose no actual threat to the direction of the narrative and we’re guaranteed that all will be revealed just before our second (third, maybe fourth) glass of wine is finished.
Nicholas Le Prevost deserves acclaim for his stupendously earnest and constantly confused Frank, and EastEnders‘ Gillian Wright is endearing as the stuttering yet kind-hearted Mary. Intelligently, Alan Strachan’s production is essentially a period piece which centers on that now archaic form of technology which used to root all communication within the family home: the landline. While the costumes are flashy samples of late-sixties fashion, and the homes seem like stereotypes of the decade’s decor, there is a feeling of real nostalgia in thinking that this sort of mayhem could no longer happen, that a simple text/tweet/instagram photo would clear up all of the chaos in mere seconds.
But perhaps that nostalgia is also a mythologized feeling, one we evoke for the same reasons we enjoy the safety of formulaic narratives. The landline and all it represents harkens back to a fictional time when things were simpler, when things were safer, where we didn’t have to worry about the issues that plague us today. Of course this isn’t true. But just as there is a deep comfort in that thought, there is a deep comfort in the formula. We feel safe.
Or we think we do. The safety we feel is as constructed as Ayckbourn’s twisty narratives. It is as ephemeral as performance itself, and worse, our desire for that safety can result in continuously producing shows which reinforce privileged voices, and marginalise and erase others.
How the Other Half Loves at Theatre Royal Haymarket is commendable theatre; it is also exactly what you think it is going to be. What we have to ask ourselves is whether safety is something we seek in theatre. And perhaps, more importantly, whether this fiction of safety sometimes perpetuates a very real danger.
How the Other Half Loves is on until 25th June 2016. Click here for tickets.