Alan Strachan’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1970 play, on tour after a successful West End run, is sharply played and often very funny, but never quite solves the dilemma at its core: it has a clever, well-handled central conceit that remains as fresh as ever, but it’s built around characters that couldn’t feel more stale.
How The Other Half Loves is a fairly bog-standard comedy of manners, made interesting by its structure – the action overlaps time and place, so that conversations in two houses happen in the same space; two dinner parties, a night apart, play out simultaneously. Strachan and the cast use this to great effect – the dinner party scene in particular is exquisitely timed, with Matthew Cottle and Sara Crowe (as the much put-upon Featherstones) as tightly choreographed as dancers, easily getting the loudest laughs of the night.
Although the first half is overlong and takes a while to build up any steam, the comedy ramps up as the action unfolds, and there are still plenty of laughs to be had. The cast is universally strong, even though their characters feel like they have been lifted direct from an old box of ’70s sitcom tropes – Robert Daws the posh, fussy husband to Caroline Langrishe’s frosty, disdainful wife, Charlie Brooks the young working class mother whose marriage is floundering.
Leon Ockenden struggles slightly with the role of Brooks’ cheating husband Bob, though that is more the play’s fault than his – it’s difficult, with today’s eyes, to see him as anything other than an abusive lout, or to view his appalling treatment of his wife as something we should be laughing at. Ockenden gamely plays up his brute animal magnetism (sometimes to great comic effect), lounging around shirtless, flaunting a very un-’70s set of perfect abs, but he’s saddled with trying to make funny something that really isn’t, so it’s hard to blame him for occasionally floundering.
The piece is performed with plenty of energy, and makes smart use of Julie Godfrey’s clever set, and if you’re happy to accept your comedy being peopled entirely by one-dimensional stereotypes, there are still pleasures to be enjoyed. But it’s hard not to think that, for all its technical brilliance, this is a play whose best days are behind it.
How The Other Half Loves is at the Theatre Royal Brighton until November 25th. For more details, click here.