How the Other Half Loves, Cambridge Arts

How the Other Half Loves by Alan Ayckbourn, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday 15 September

How the Other Half Loves by Alan Ayckbourn, Arts Theatre, Cambridge

No one comes near Alan Ayckbourn for the brilliance of his stage mechanics. Three interconnected married couples, a secret liaison, lies, false alibis and cover-ups. That's all played out on a set of two completely intersecting rooms. Ayckbourn even stages, simultaneously, two dinner parties involving the same guests on two different evenings.

It's breathtakingly ingenious. The characters walk across the stage, just missing each other, but obliviously because they're in different rooms. Then, suddenly and for seconds, they switch to the other dinner party.

That may sound too clever by half, but it isn't. Underneath all the dramatic adroitness, there are funny lines, colourful characterisations and a sideswipe at middle class marriage in the 1960s. There's even a hint of the dark side of Ayckbourn's later writing - with marital bullying, a suggestion of mental breakdown and even violence.

The link between the married couples is the menfolk. The predatory Geordie, Bob (Richard Stacey), and the mind-bogglingly boring William (Peter Kemp) both work for Frank (Nicholas le Prevost). When Bob has a late night assignation with the boss's jaded wife, Fiona (an elegantly languid Marsha Fitzalan), it has to be hidden from discovery in both households. That's where the trouble begins.

The casting is faultless. Nicholas le Prevost is a masterly comic actor playing a character who lives in a complete fog, grasping the wrong end of every stick, his blundering foot finding its way into every fragile situation. His timing is exquisite, his permanent look of genial bewilderment a delight.

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There are some wonderful moments of comic business from the mousy third couple, William and Mary (Peter Kemp and Amanda Royle). There's a pure music-hall moment when Mary, offered a sherry with her hands already full, tries to take her gloves off, put them into the handbag which has to be put onto her other arm, take the glass and choke, all at more or less the same time.

I've admired the work of director Alan Strachan since the late Sixties and prefer his production here to the original London show, which starred the late Robert Morley.

A little thought. I remember interviewing Robert Morley at the time. A large man, he had difficulty in reaching his shoes and asked me if I'd tie his shoelace up, which I did. Exactly that happens as a piece of comic business in Alan Strachan's production. I just wonder if it was a Robert Morley addition that got itself written in.

Ivan Howlett

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