Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

William, mary Frank and Fiona

Richard Constable, left, as William, Eliza Harris as Mary with Phil Astle as Frank, in his drain cleaning attire, along with Sharon Clayton as Fiona. Pictures: Emily White.

How the other half loves

Highbury Theatre Centre


Relationships are funny things, or they can be when three married couples, and of course Alan Ayckbourn, get involved, or, indeed, not involved as the case may, or may not, be.

And with nine possible pairings you don’t so much need a programme as a bit on the side flowchart to follow what is, or is not going on.

Frank Foster, played by Phil Astle, has a sort of distant, polite relationship with his wife Fiona, played by Sharon Clayton. Frank sort of bumbles along, nothing seems to phase him, a sort of steady, if uninspiring, Eddy, a genial, long winded bore with a problem remembering names, places, most things it seems until the umpteenth attempt.

His wife arrives home, worse for wear in the early hours and he swallows her excuses in her changing story, without much protest, which shows, if nothing else, a lack of imagination. He seems much more suspicious about his food. Everything he eats he decides appears to be, or at least seems to taste off.

Fiona is the sophisticated one, hairdressing appointments, posh frocks and, oh so exotic and classy in 1969 when the play was written, avocado starters – remember this was a time when Vesta curries arrived to be the pinnacle of culinary chic for the masses.

She is happily living her own life around Frank’s vague idea of married bliss, so much so that her return in the early hours meant she had missed her wedding anniversary, not by design, merely not seeing it as important enough to remember.

Frank and Fiona are the up-market pair. They live in a nice house, two toilets and they even have bathroom stationary – bog roll to you and me. He is head of a department of some unnamed firm and employs Bob and William. Who they? you may ask.

Well Bob Phillips, played with all the charm of a grumpy bulldog with toothache by Sean Mulkeen, is married to Teresa, played by Maureen Smojkis, who has a constant battle with unseen baby Benjamin who has the ability to eat wallpaper, spoons, cover himself in prunes and generally wreck any surrounding environment.

Their marriage is . . . let’s just say it’s more of a constant skirmish, full of endless bickering, she writing angry letters to The Guardian, he, well, just angry. In Ayckbourn’s examination of class they are the middle duo of the piece with a comfortable home and lower aspirations. Bob, incidentally, arrived home in the early hours, tired and emotional as a newt, as they say, on the same night Fiona made her late return home – just saying.

bob, mary, teresa

Sean Mulkeen as Bob Eliza Harris as Mary and Maureen Smojkis as Teresa

Let’s just say Fiona was somewhat less impressed or convinced with Bob’s excuses, than Frank was with Fiona’s but, as is the way of things, excuses can have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences.

Meanwhile, at the working class end of the spectrum we have the Featherstones. There is William, played by Richard Constable, who is a whiz with figures, wears half-mast trousers, has a mysterious hobby, is a disciple of serious and when it comes to wife Mary, is a control freak with no equal. You suspect she only breathes with his permission and, while he bullies and commands Mary, at the same time he has an inferiority complex with others, particularly around Frank with his nice house and, in William’s eyes, higher status, so is afraid to risk offending or appearing above his station to what he sees as his superiors.

While Bob seems to both accept and resent his lot, William has hopes and sees Frank, or at least his sort of home and status, as something to aspire to.

Mary, played by Eliza Harris, has turned timid into an art form, unable to speak or even think for herself, and afraid of her own shadow when she meets people, indeed she is almost catatonic when we first meet her at the Phillips’ house, or is it the Foster’s living room.

Hard to tell really, as the Featherstones have been invited to dinner at both in a bid to save their failing, or possibly not failing, at least not yet, marriage which all gets a bit confusing. You see Fiona is hoping to help William see the error of his ways, ways he may or may not have to be seen in in the first place, while Frank is, well, being frank with Mary who, one might say, has never been contrary in her life. The Featherstones and their infidelity (the in being optional in this case) having become collateral damage in the nookie affair.

If you are confused, they you haven’t seen anything yet. The play is set in the Phillips’ lounge . . . and the Foster’s lounge all at the same time in a sort of parallel universe. The poor old Featherstones reduced to living backstage somewhere one assumes.

Bob and Fiona

Bob and Fiona just a phone call away . . .

And once you have got used to that, two couples occupying the same space, we have the dinner party bending the dimensions of not only space but also time - Einstein would have been proud.

Thursday night and Friday night combine along the same time continuum with the Phillips and Fosters, each hosting dinner parties 24 hours apart on the same table at the same time in the same, but, crucially, different room, with the Featherstones somewhere in the middle proving you can be in two places at once.

To say the two for the price of one dinner party turned out to be a success would be a stretch, indeed it, or more accurately they, were a bit of a disaster, what with flying anti-perspirant flavoured soup and a leaking toilet.

Running through the play is the telephone, or rather telephones, side by side on the shared coffee table in the dual home set. With lovers, maybe, attempting, usually unsuccessfully, to speak to each other and Teresa ending up with a heavy breather caller . . . possibly.

The six characters are all different, amiable Frank, belligerent Bob and nerdy, intense William, with confident Fiona, argumentative Teresa and timid Mary with all six on stage at the same time in the same place just once, and that for Frank’s big showdown, which ended with . . . now that would be telling, suffice to say it didn’t altogether go to plan.

It sounds like you might struggle to follow it all, but the confusion is all on stage, when excuses and downright lies run out of control and we see a veritable train crash unfolding as ill-informed but well-intentioned attempts are made to solve problems that only exist once someone tries to solve them.

Its all deadly serious for the six characters which makes it great fun to watch as the holes being dug get deeper and deeper.

Malcolm Robertshaw’s set provides us with the two rooms in the same space while the six protagonists do well to avoid any hint at eye contact when on stage with someone who isn’t there, if you see what I mean.

Director Ian Appleby lets the confusion flow with an excellent cast who never let things get out of control adding some lovely glances, looks and gestures to help bring dialogue to life. An entertaining evening all round, just remember to get home early, sober and have your excuses ready – just in case. The other half will be loving, or not, to 29-01-22.

Roger Clarke


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