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How the Other Half Loves review at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – ‘venerable but biting’

Jason Merrells and Tamzin Outhwaite in How The Other Half Loves at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Bill Kenwright produced the first UK tour of this early Ayckbourn hit in 1973, as well as its first West End revival in 1988 – the first of his plays to be revived in the commercial West End – so he has long form and history with it. So does director Alan Strachan, who directed that 1988 production as well as another in 1976.

Now they both honour and bring life to this formally inventive, bracing comedy of marital infidelity and those caught unwittingly in its crosshairs as its main participants try furiously to cover their tracks.  But while it looks like standard sitcom fare, even in this – only Ayckbourn’s second West End hit – the playwright is already making the kind of bold and daring experiments in theatrical form that would become an artistic signature.

In this case, the three men all work for the same company, and one of them is having an affair with another’s wife. When suspicions start arising, the entirely innocent William and his wife Mary are implicated as alibis – and invited to dinner on successive nights at the homes of each of the homes of the other couples. Ayckbourn’s imaginative masterstroke is to have the lounge dining rooms of each house on stage simultaneously – and to play out the dinner parties contemporaneously as well.

There’s rich ingenuity and even more room for ambiguity as it all unravels – as it must inevitably. Strachan directs with precision and his exemplary cast respond with perfect nuance and comic nous. The couples are respectively brought to stinging life by the uptight Nicholas Le Prevost and Jenny Seagrove, the chaotic Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Merrells, and the gloriously downtrodden Gillian Wright and Matthew Cottle.

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A welcome return for Ayckbourn's now venerable but still biting comedy