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How the Other Half Loves
First staged in 1970, How
the Other Half Loves is a direct descendant of the drawing room farces of Oscar Wilde
and NoŽl Coward. It adds a more contemporary outlook, including references to and a
certain dependence upon the precepts of the permissive society, but it is
essentially a tale of well-to-do people getting lost in the mix between social graces and
personal misunderstandings. In common with Wilde and Coward, it also trades on the
quintessentially English sense of faint superiority and the proprietary repression of
natural emotional reactions to extreme situations. It is also very funny.
Ayckbourns contemporaneity as a playwright is evident throughout
though. Apart from the nuances in dialogue which capture the shifting idioms of the
English tongue in the latter twentieth century (as well as the changes in social class
which make it quite a distinct world from Wildes and a little more modulated than
Cowards), it comes with clever stage directions which stamp it with a post-modern
The story explores the interaction between three couples connected by
the workplace of the three men. Frank and Fiona Foster (Mal Whyte and Una Crawford
OBrien) are the wealthy manager and wife. Teresa and Bob Phillips (Susie Lamb and
Alan Smyth) are a slightly more downmarket pair and have recently become parents for the
first time. William and Mary Featherstone (Arthur Riordan and Clodagh ODonoghue) are
a gormless duo unwittingly drawn into a series of subterfuges when Mrs. Foster and Mr.
Phillips try to cover up their fleeting dalliance with one another by informing their
respective spouses that the Featherstones are the ones who are having marital problems.
What is distinctive is that rather than intercut between domestic
scenes in the respective houses by blocking off the stage into separate compartments,
Ayckbourn ingeniously suggested that parallel action could be portrayed simultaneously in
the one space. Actors move around one another on a set cleverly arranged to represent two
different living quarters. Scenes are paced so that they do not talk over one another, but
otherwise the characters are active almost all of the time, portraying ongoing drama in
their own homes which advances the overall plot. Though essentially an evolution of
classic stage techniques such as asides and dumbshows, there is a sense of the everyday
cadence of life here which self-consciously blends naturalism with artificiality.
This conceit also allows the author to draw the audiences
attention to the interconnectedness of disparate lives and how human behaviors fall into
familiar rhythms regardless of minor differences in social status or level of
intelligence. It gives it its social dimension, and also allows the elements of farce to
incorporate action taking place in different places at different times (an inventive
dinner scene represents two disastrous evening meals at which the Featherstones are
guests in two residences).
Lane Productions (Alone it Stands) mounting of Ayckbourn's comedy
under the direction of John P. Kelly does full justice to the intellectual wit of the play
without losing touch with its entertainment value. With the aid of a terrific set designed
by Robert Lane, nice performances from all of its cast and crisp, controlled direction
from Kelly, it hits all the right notes.
Whyte (Barbaric Comedies) is particularly good as Mr.
Foster. He perfectly catches the characters mixture of befuddlement and authority,
making him appear believably flawed rather than just buffoonish. He captures the slow
processes of defective reasoning which guide the characters actions as he tries to
untangle the falsehoods and is generally fun to watch at all times. Soap star OBrien
is a good match as his elegant but unfaithful wife. She does a good line in Penelope
Keith-type hauteur which suits the play perfectly. Susie Lamb is also very effective as
the cuckolded Mrs. Phillips, a sort of proto-feminist character who may not entirely
appeal to contemporary women but shows a sense of independence which makes its point in
context. All of the performers do well under the circumstances though, with Riordan (Wired
to the Moon) and ODonoghue called upon to perform the double party scene with
slight changes in attitude and posture which show different responses.
This production is running in Dublin at the same time as Cowards Blithe Spirit at The Gate.
Entertaining though the latter is, How the Other Half Loves achieves a balance
between drama and farce more easily and the laughs come more quickly and consistently.
Though certain elements of its permissive society foundations have dated it,
the play still works in a contemporary setting. No attempt has been made to play it in
period and reference the iconography of the 1970s (characters even read the days
current newspapers) in contrast with Blithe Spirits adherence to its
sources. The use of a contemporary setting avoids the trap of nostalgic evocation which
can sometimes lock contemporary productions of Wilde and Coward into a museum-piece mode.
Dublin, August 14, 2001
- Harvey O'Brien