How The Other Half Loves, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
It would barely be an insult to say that the cast of Alan Ayckbourn’s ingenious farce is out-acted by the set. It wouldn’t be true – every one of the six parts is sharply delivered by the actors, whose acute sense of timing makes ever punchline a fresh surprise and every character something more than a cog in the comic machinery. But, when the stage design is this good, it couldn’t be considered a slight on anyone’s skill.
Performed in the round, this extraordinarily funny play demands that two different domestic sets – one immaculate upper-middle class, one untidy lower-middle – can be created from the same props in the same scene. On the half-lit stage, furniture is dismantled and recombined in strange cut-and-shut shapes with an easy audacity that matches the outrageous (yet precisely designed) separations and attachments that take place (or are assumed to take place) between the three married couples.
For a farce, the problem is to push the characters embarrassment to the point where it’s excruciating for the audience, but never so far that things can’t be put back to how they were for the end of the final act. Here, it’s a well-crafted magic trick – the audience never quite knows where things are going, but Ayckbourn has every angle covered.
The ecstatic laughter comes, not just from the characters’ sly and increasingly frantic evasions, but also from the play’s daring escape from every seeming impasse of the plot. (The slapstick gag that ends the first half and unites the two onstage rooms is a perfectly-executed example.) How The Other Half Loves plays its audience hard, but never cheats – or, if it does, the rippling pleasure of the constant laughter it gives you is enough to make you embrace it anyway.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009