(reviewed at the Southwold Summer Theatre on 8 July)
You can never take an Ayckbourn play at its face value. How the Other Half Loves was his second major commercial success in 1070; David Harris’ production which opened this year’s Suffolk Summer Theatres season sensibly keeps the 1969 setting for this typical blend of sharp social satire, surreal elements and a wryly compassionate look at what motivates people to behave in certain ways in situations partly of their own making.
The emphasis, as Ayckbourn likes to place it, is very much on the female condition. We meet the Fosters – lady-who-lunches Fiona and company manager Frank – and the Phillips – company man-on-the-make and new mother Teresa – share Maurice Rubens simultaneous living rooms.
These characters have enough complications between them without really needing the Featherstones – country mouse Mary and Welsh new employee William. That’s when the sexual, social and work permutations really start to create their own momentum. If you know Southwold’s summer Theatre, you know that the stage is quite small, though Rubens’ ingenuity works a miracle of visual stretching.
Small is the last word you could use to describe the acting with the balance between over-the-top (OTT) and naturalism beautifully balanced. Rosanna Miles is in turns funny and pathetic as Mary, the mouse who does eventually unsheathe her well-concealed claws. Eliza McClelland flounces and pirouettes in her chiffon and high heels to hilarious effect (the costumes are by Miri Birch).
Then there’s Teresa (Terri to her husband and friends). Marriage hasn’t turned out to be the bed of roses she probably expected a year or so ago; her husband is an autocrat, her son is at the teething, sleepless and whimpering stage, so everyday chores like housework and cooking are being relegated to a secondary status. All of which Kate Middleton makes utterly credible.
Bob does not like what his fun-loving but acquiescent wife has becomes one tiny bit. As Chris Clarkson amply demonstrates, the man is selfish and a bully. Physically Bob may meet his match in Rick Savery’s Will – but in many ways each is as thoughtless and liable to jump to conclusions as the other. Thoughtless, in the other hand, is not an adjective you can apply to Michael Shaw’s Frank.
Yes, the man is so absent-minded and easy to distract that you wonder how on earth he has reached his senior professional level. But there’s a steel core under all that fluff and his tenacity both provides the comedy as he becomes helplessly involved in marital and social turmoil of which he was partly the cause. When he turns the tables… but you really ought to see for yourself how it ll works out.
How the Other Half Loves runs at the Southwold Summer Theatre until 18 July and transfers to the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh from 23 July to 1 August.