Ayckbourn's Take on Marital Infidelity and Confusion!
“It’s better than nothing. The older you get, the better it is and the bigger the nothing. “
Alan Ayckbourn has never tired of the puzzle of playwriting, setting plays together and showing differing sides of the interaction. He will set himself intricate tasks which may also be complex for the actors to play. The Norman Conquests (1973) were in three parts and we saw the same event from three differing perspectives. In House and Garden (1999) seen at the National Theatre in two different theatres in 2000, simultaneous events played at the same time and actors ran between theatres to make their entrance.
Here at the riverside antique watermill in Sonning, Berkshire is one of Ayckbourn’s earliest plays How the Other Half Loves to feature parallel events happening on stage simultaneously. The set by Michael Holt reflects two dining room/living rooms where the cast of six play as if they can only see people in the one house. Telephones which sit side by side, one a 1960s Trim-phone and the other more conventional, are used to phone the other house. It sounds complicated but the excellent direction by Robin Herford is such that you will understand who belongs where and why quite quickly.
We open in the house of Frank Foster (Stuart Fox) who owns the company where all the men work. Fiona (Julia Hills) his much younger wife with redhead curls has erred twice, once by forgetting their wedding anniversary the day before and by staying out to the early hours without her husband. Facing a similar predicament but without a forgotten wedding anniversary is Bob Phillips (Damien Matthews) whose wife Theresa (Ruth Gibson) is coping with unseen baby Ben on her own. To cover up, Bob tells Theresa he was out late comforting his heretofore dull workmate William Featherstone (Ben Porter) about Ben’s wife’s suspected infidelity.
As Fiona has been trying to phone Bob as she is in the midst of an exciting affair, she hears of his subterfuge and uses a similar explanation to Frank by saying that she was out with the unadventurous Mary Featherstone (Emily Pithon) listening to Mary’s story of her unfaithful husband. Fiona has only met Mary and Will once before but Will is about to be promoted at work to the section where Frank is in charge and Bob also works. Got it? Well keep up!
The highlight of the developing farce is the dinner parties being held in each house on consecutive nights with the Fosters hosting one and the Phillips’s hosting the other and in both cases the Featherstones are the guests. Part of the preparation for this scene is the placing of a dining room table extension that does not fit or match between two sections that do match.
What follows is the hysterical scene where the Featherstones are in attendance at both, looking straight ahead to talk to the Phillips’s and like the crowd at some frantic tennis match looking to either side to listen to the Fosters. One of the repercussions of the tale telling is that Mary and Bill become much more interesting characters than their reality with Frank flirting wildly with a rather demure Mary. This scene must be a nightmare to direct but there is plenty to laugh out loud at.
This is such a fun evening in the theatre, on top of a delicious supper for the Mill at Sonning is a dining theatre, and we are witnessing expert stage craft from the cast, director and designer not to mention the playwright.
Ayckbourn’s magnificent oeuvre of plays is a comic delight at the Mill at Sonning and we can see that his Bedroom Farce is on the bill for August 2024 so we have more fine comedies to look forward to in this idyllic rural English setting.
How the Other Half Loves
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Robin Herford
Director: Robin Herford
Set Designer: Michael Holt
Costume Designer: Natalie Titchener
Lighting Designer: Matthew Biss
Fight Director: JAlison de Burgh
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 25th September 2023
The Mill at Sonning Theatre
Box Office: (0118) 969 8000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Mill at Sonning
on 18th August 2023