at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
This early Ayckbourn – first seen as the Sixties staggered to an end - has all the hallmarks of his greatest work. It remains popular with amateur groups.
But it is wonderful to see a bench-mark production like Alan Strachan's Haymarket revival. Like all the plays of Ayckbourn's golden age, it combines clever technical trickery with comedy of manners. In this case, we are looking at social class, and, suggested by the other meaning of “other half”, marital infidelity.
Two couples from very different strata, the upper-middle Fosters, and the working/lower-middle Phillipses. We see them both at the start of the day. And we see them both at once, since Julie Godfrey's massive set incorporates elements of these two very different décors, and the action ingeniously overlaps.
There is a third couple, unwittingly roped in as alibi for the adulterous flings. As in the best farce, a small indiscretion, a little white lie, forms the unstable foundation of a towering mess of deception and misunderstanding.
The key scene – the one everyone remembers – is the dinner parties; one in each house, on consecutive nights, but played out simultaneously in a truly hilarious set piece, beautifully timed here, especially by the swivelling Featherstones, awkwardly caught up in the web of deceit.
Nicholas Le Prevost, unfailingly funny as obtuse Frank Foster, vague and prone to taking the wrong end of the stick, while his icy wife is nicely done by Jenny Seagrove – a couple who are clearly the prototypes for the elderly Ernest and Delia in Bedroom Farce. Tamzin Outhwaite is the feisty Teresa Phillips, writing unpublished letters to the Guardian, Jason Merrells ss her slob of a husband. But the most priceless couple – closest to caricature, too - are the Featherstones, “Pinky and Perky”, who foreshadow the Hopcrofts in Absurd Person Singular. Gillian Wright, awkwardness personified, and Matthew Cottle, a buttoned-up old fogey before his time.
The sextet on stage here is pretty near perfect, and the production is polished and perfectly paced. Nice act curtain too, with 60s graphic design [CND, radiogram, clock] and some appropriate tunes: The Other Man's Grass, Suspicious Minds …
We've not seen a new Ayckbourn in the West End for a decade or more. So thanks to good old Bill Kenwright, who toured this piece back in the 70s and brought it into town for a 1988 revival, for reminding us again of the genius at his classic best.
photograph: Alastair Muir