JOYCE McMILLAN on HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 26.9.07
5 stars *****
IT’S ONE OF THE BESETTING SINS of cultural life, in Britain, that we constantly tend to over-rate the importance of the tragic and enigmatic, as against the comic and playful. In terms of breathtaking structural boldness and piercing social insight, Alan Ayckbourn’s great 1969 hit How The Other Half Loves – with its central device of showing two very different households on stage, simultaneously, throughout – is probably one of the half-dozen finest plays written in Britain in the last half-century. But because its crises and dilemmas are instantly understandable to any audience – and because, above all, it makes us laugh until we cry – we constantly overlook its greatness in favour of more solemn and portentous stuff.
It doesn’t matter, though; because almost 40 years on, Ayckbourn’s play is still inspiring productions like this superb touring version from the Theatre Royal, Bath, brilliantly directed by Alan Strachan, and starring Nicholas le Prevost in outstanding form as the bumbling upper-middle-class boss, Frank Foster, whose blind eye to his glamorous wife’s infidelity with a rising young manager, Bob Phillips, sets the plot in motion. The production boasts a fantastically precise and witty sense of period detail, matched with some world-class physical comedy, and six performances so fine that they both embody and transcend the play’s late-Sixties setting in the way that only the greatest theatre can. And the truth revealed is that through 40 years of breakneck social change, none of the demons brought to light in this play have been fully laid to rest. The wars of class and status still rage, domestic bullying still happens, sexual thrill-seeking still involves a frightening edge of violence; and middle-class liberals like Bob’s wife Terry still helplessly write letters to the Editor of The Guardian, hoping that one day, the grim carousel of runaway consumption and ruthless status-seeking will finally grind to a halt.
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