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A nostalgic romp with a twist of irony for the 21st century
Mary (Brittany Daw) having a misleading phone conversation with Frank (Andrew Clark)
Galleon Theatre Group recently celebrated its 50th birthday, so this production naturally comprises a team of seasoned, experienced performers, directed by Warren McKenzie.
After Alan Ayckbourn's How The Other Half Loves premiered in Scarborough in 1969, it went on to become one of his most successful plays, playing to packed houses in London and New York. Nearly 50 years later it still provokes loud guffaws, but many of the attitudes that it satirises have now become sensitive issues, and on occasions, it had us uncomfortably squirming in our seats.
The plot, as you would expect from an Ayckbourn farce, is highly complicated: Frank Foster is Bob Phillips' boss, and Bob is having a clandestine affair with Frank's wife, Fiona. Bob has a stormy relationship with his wife, Teresa, while Frank and Fiona manage their differences in a supremely middle-class English manner, addressing each other with icy politeness. Things get enormously complicated when both Bob and Fiona explain away their absences by implicating an innocent third party, William and Mary Featherstone.
Fiona (Joanne St Clair) gives well-meaning advice to Bob (Andy Steuart) and Teresa (Leanne Robinson)
The set is Ayckbourn's pièce de résistance: it represents both the Foster residence and the Phillips household at once. In the first act, each couple takes turns to act out their domestic dramas on the same set. In the second act, the Featherstones are invited to dinner at both apartments on consecutive nights, and the two scenes are skilfully swapped back and forth across the set, as the tension and confusion build up to a climax. Just as the final act seems to be resolving the chaos, Frank's interpretation of events serves to complicate the situation even further.
All six actors are well cast and clearly enjoy playing their roles. Joanne St Clair and Leanne Robinson (Fiona and Teresa) were both outstanding in the way they projected not only the personality of their characters but also their innermost thoughts. Andrew Clark (Frank) and Andy Steuart (Bob) dealt valiantly with more stereotyped characters. Frank's absent-mindedness would have been regarded as eccentricity when the play came out, but these days it inevitably implies dementia, adding a poignancy that conflicts with the comic flavour of the performance. Bob is a drunkard and a womaniser, and his assumption that the woman is there to cook and keep the house tidy grates on 21st-century ears – but sadly, those attitudes are still widely accepted in Australian society.
The Featherstones presented a major challenge to actors Aled Proeve and Brittany Daw. William is at the same time obsequious towards his potential boss (Frank) and obsessively controlling over his wife. Mary is painfully shy and nervous, just the sort of female that bullies love to torment. Proeve and Daw made the best of the far from sparkling dialogue that this couple are given to speak, using their body language to further suggest their awkwardness. Through no fault on the actors' part, the second act was slowed down by the lack of wit in William and Mary's conversation, which contrasted with the gathering momentum of tension between the other two couples. But the final act brings some surprises: Mary finally shows some fortitude and briefly puts William in his place, while Bob seems to become a reformed character – probably not for long either - and Teresa has the last laugh.
Mary and William (Aled Proeve) trying to make small talk with Fiona
The theatre has rows of seating at the back of the auditorium with cabaret-style café tables in front, butting right up to the stage. This meant that although we had a good view from the tiered seats, we were further away from the stage than we would have liked, and the dialogue was a little hard to hear at times. The set managed to evoke two very different '60s style furnishings at once, but in the process, it had become over-cluttered and distracting. The actors nimbly dodged in and out of the props, however, never once losing the thread of Ayckbourn's fiendishly convoluted plot. The costumes and hairstyles could have had a little more '60s flavour, but there may have been budget restraints.
I highly recommend this production for the exceptional standard of the performance. The Domain Theatre is fortunate to have not just a bar but an excellent café attached to it, where you can eat before you go in to watch the play – or you can book a café table and BYO food to eat inside the auditorium.
This play will probably amuse you, but it will also give you pause for thought: was Ayckbourn really criticising the mores of his time or did he simply set out to entertain? And how much progress have we made since the '60s? We like to think we are far more able to distinguish and condemn the bullies and misogynists these days, but they still get away with their behaviour in the same way as they did in Ayckbourn's era, by joking about it.
How the Other Half Loves is at 8pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until October 27. There is also a matinee on the 27 at 2pm. Book tickets on the Galleon Theatre group's website or call 83756855.