Sir Alan Ayckbourn is internationally renowned for his clever farces exploring sexual politics and social class. How the Other Half Loves is a prime example of his successful formula at work. There’s the usual parade of lies, suspicions and agonising misunderstandings driving the tangled plot forward and the audience to distraction, which is all very well and good if you’re into that kind of thing.
Frank and Fiona Foster (Jeff Mitchell and Bernadette Smith) are our couple from the upper crust. Frank is the manager at the firm at which the thuggish Bob Phillips (Mark Fell) and the gormless William Featherstone (Paul Newman) work. Bob lives with his wife Teresa (Leila Elbahy) and baby in a London flat which is only slightly less chaotic than their combative marriage.
In an effort to cover a brief romantic dalliance, Bob and Fiona tell their respective spouses that William and his wife Mary (Michele Williams) are having marital problems. William and Mary are then invited over for dinner parties (of course!). From there, the whole thing escalates into an amusing mess of supposition, misdirected accusations and repressed emotion.
The real genius in this play is the parallel action occurring simultaneously in the one space, extending even to concurrently-staged dinner parties on two subsequent nights. Rather than blocking off two domestic spaces on the stage and intercutting between them, the living/dining rooms of the Fosters and the Phillips are cunningly interwoven. Director/set designer Christopher Sargent has done a great job of creating overlapping yet distinct households in the same small space, and the actors rise remarkably well to the task of remaining focussed on their own scenario, while allowing the action in the “other household” to continue to unfold. It’s an ingeniously immediate way of relating how these parallel and entwined lives overlap.
Jeff Mitchell is undisputedly the star of this production. Playing Frank Foster with exactly the right believable balance of vagueness and authority, he is consistently fun to watch. Although perhaps slightly “mature” for their roles, Paul Newman and Michele Williams put in strong performances as the inept and befuddled Featherstones (somewhat confusingly labelled “Detweilers” in the program), with Michele Williams’ portrayal of Mary as the twitchy social phobic raising a good number of laughs. Another humorous highlight is Bernadette Smith’s euphemistic “escaping the weather” monologue in Act II.
This is a solid rendition of a slightly dated farce, and a fun escapist way to spend a couple of hours on a chilly Brisbane evening. Don’t expect anything too deep or meaningful, and don’t look too closely at the plot, but if you go along expecting to have a good time you won’t be disappointed. The laughs are plentiful and the distinctive set is certainly worth a gander.
In an unusually maternal finishing note, this reviewer would like to remind readers to rug up well when they attend: the well-ventilated Hamilton Town Hall isn’t heated.