Review by Brian MacReamoinn.
Alan Ayckbourn: the name immediately guarantees a great night of escapism at the theatre. It conjures up a very recognisable world of suburbia and the ongoing, un-winnable battle between the men and women who live there.
The tragicomic domestic conflict that lies at the heart of a lot of Ayckbourn’s work is a rich seam he has mined with unparalleled success, and fresh nuggets are still being extracted.
A new play out later this year will almost be his 90th in what must rank as one of the most prolific careers in drama.
But tonight we are time travelling back some 50 years for a revival of a much earlier comedy, How the Other Half Loves. Appropriately, The Gazette saw it on February 14, a perfect occasion to witness love’s vicissitudes as well as its valentines.
The play, first seen in Scarborough, had its première in London in 1970. Ah, the 1970s: flock wallpaper and avocado for starters, brown corduroy jackets and dry sherry, sideboards and sideburns.
It’s a milieu familiar to quite a few members of the Salisbury Playhouse audience, though not all – the age spread was surprisingly wide.
Oddly, only one of those relics has survived, but is now available in a bewildering variety of ways and is certainly advocated by the millennials in the theatre.
Though perhaps they were shocked at the amount of casual sexism and sense of male superiority on display, whereas those who grew up then simply winced at the idea that this was accepted behaviour at the time.
Of course, Ayckbourn punctures and ridicules that male self-importance as well as having the female characters rebel against the dreadful chauvinism.
But he does it all with the lightest of touches as the plot and the characters’ actions grow increasingly farcical.
The comedic chaos is set in motion by a simple phone call. Fiona Foster rings Bob Phillips the morning after a late night out together – without their spouses.
When Fiona’s husband, Frank (who happens to be Bob’s boss), and Bob’s wife, Teresa, voice their suspicions, the two lovers independently invent spur-of-the-moment alibis involving Bob’s new work colleague, William Featherstone, and his wife, Mary.
However, the unwitting pair then find themselves suddenly invited to not one, but two dinner parties. So the scene is set up perfectly for more skirmishes in the marriage wars.
The master puppeteer Ayckbourn lets us witness these two inevitable disasters at the same time: the set (designed by Michael Taylor) cleverly encompasses both the successful, well-to-do Fosters’ elegant, spacious dining area and the struggling, down-at-heel Phillips’ messy, cramped sitting-room.
In this parallel dinner party universe, the three couples take part in a mad dance of hilarious misunderstandings and confusion.
The cast of six – Sam Alexander (William), Sherry Baines (Fiona), Philip Bretherton (Frank), Rebecca Cooper (Mary), Haydn Oakley (Bob), and Joanna van Kampen (Teresa) – wonderfully embody these classic Ayckbourn archetypes and perform the dual dinner scenes with Swiss-watch timing under the sure directorial hand of Gareth Machin, the Playhouse’s artistic director.
The constant laughter doesn’t lie. Once again, Alan Ayckbourn delivers another great night at the theatre.
How the Other Half Loves runs at Salisbury Playhouse until March 4. To book tickets, visit: