First staged in 1970, How the Other Half Loves is a direct descendant of the drawing room farces of Oscar Wilde and No�l 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.
Ayckbourn’s 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 Wilde’s and a little more modulated than Coward’s), it comes with clever stage directions which stamp it with a post-modern theatrical sensibility.
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 O’Brien) 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 O’Donoghue) 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 audience’s 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 Featherstone’s 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 character’s 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 character’s actions as he tries to untangle the falsehoods and is generally fun to watch at all times. Soap star O’Brien 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 O’Donoghue 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 Coward’s 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 day’s current newspapers) in contrast with Blithe Spirit’s 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