Everyone loves a good farce.
The quintessential Britishness of the genre has long cemented it as a staple of our comedic sensibilities, and while it’s been a mainstay for generations, the recent resurgence in its popularity — see One Man, Two Guvnors, The Play That Goes Wrong and the magnificent The Comedy About the Bank Robbery — means it’s the perfect time for Alan Ayckbourn’s classic How the Other Half Loves to get its first major revival since its premiere in 1970. And since the production opened in March at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, the show has been met with such critical acclaim that it’s now extending it’s limited 13 week run and moving house, transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre.
With its mishaps, miscommunication and misunderstandings, HTOHL is a perfectly crafted piece about human relationships and married life. Like many of Ayckbourn’s other plays, it focuses on domestic life between couples, and how different social and marital pressures can impact your relationship. The comedy comes in when Bob (Jason Merrells) and Fiona (Jenny Seagrove) haphazardly try to cover up their affair from their partners, inadvertently pulling the mild-mannered William (Matthew Cottle) and his wife Mary (Gillian Wright) into the fray.
What follows is two dinner parties, a whole heap of further crossed wires and some brilliantly played out farcical, near-slapstick set pieces—it’s a genuine hoot that barely lets the audience catch its breath between belly laughs and observational asides. The show is split into four acts (there’s an interval between acts two and three), and each wondrous new scene crescendos expertly into side-splitting hilarity before the curtain falls each time, such is the impeccable writing of Ayckbourn’s work.
The production is a further marvel because of the ingenious set design, split in two so that Bob and has wife Terri’s (played by Tamzin Outhwaite when we saw the show earlier in the year, portrayed by Andrea Lowe since it’s transfer to the Duke of York’s) living room merges with that of Fiona’s and her husband Frank’s (Nicholas Le Prevost) without pause or apology, meaning the audience watches two scenes unravel at once, jumping from one argument or mishap to another with epic timing. The dinner scenes, in which Mary and William are the guests for each other couple, are meant to occur on consecutive nights, but they play out simultaneously, resulting in wonderfully comedic moments as we shift between meals, especially for Cottle and Wright, who are so on the money in this section that you’re flabbergasted as to how they know what they’re doing or where they’re supposed to be at any given moment.
It would be fair to say that the whole cast are wonderful here, but it’s Nicholas Le Prevost who steals the show as Frank, whose bumbling, idiosyncratic tinkering leads to much of the major confusion at the heart of this silly triumph.
Still fondly loved as one of Ayckbourn’s most popular plays, this hilarious tale of social graces and personal misunderstandings is a glorious piece of theatre, so it’s no surprise that, despite the ‘70s setting and kitsch, retro feel, it still remains completely relevant and relatable to modern audiences and endures as one of the celebrated writer’s most famous pieces.
How the Other Half Loves is now showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 1 Oct 2016. Get your tickets here.