How The Other Half Loves: Articles by Other Authors

In 1972, actor Robert Morley wrote a remarkable article to mark the 700th performance of How The Other Half Loves at the Lyric Theatre, London. This extensive article (abridged here, but still extensive!) gave his insight into his entire involvement with the play and offers a fascinating alternative perspective to thow the play was originally produced in the West. Unfortunately, there is no record of the publication or when it was published.

How I failed to touch Mr Beaumont for £1000 on the way to the Lyric, and other adventures

By Robert Morley

In April 1970 there seemed little point in going to Leicester, where How The Other Half Loves was being given a second chance at the local repertory theatre, the first production of the play at Scarborough some months before having satisfied neither author nor management. The invitation had come from Peter Bridge, whom I knew only slightly. On the other hand, I had to find myself a play and a new management. Hugh Beaumont, of H. M. Tennent, with whom I had been closely connected for much of my theatrical life, and I had come to the parting of the ways….
What finally decided me to go to Leicester was a race meeting at Stratford-on-Avon, where a horse of mine was entered to run. On the map Leicester seemed fairly close. There was a time when I knew every provincial city in England. I spent 10 years of my life on tour, but I had forgotten Leicester. In any case it appeared to have been re-planned recently with multi-storey car parks to depress me with their biological under-stains and crush barriers to keep back non-existent crowds. The object of the exercise is that you should drive straight through such cities these days without stopping, or indeed noticing that they are there at all.
I was surprised to find the theatre in a bus depot, but I suppose even that makes sense in a way. A handy sort of house with raked seats and a flat stage, the convenience of a curtain was dispensed with, so that when the furniture had to be changed halfway through the first act, an entirely separate production was mounted with a ringmaster and uniformed circus hands. The audience enjoyed it hugely. I thought they quite liked the play.
After the performance several patrons accosted Robin Midgley, who had directed the piece, with advice on how to improve it. He struck me then, as he does now, as an eminently patient, reasonable and above all resourceful fellow. About the play I was not so certain. The most serious snag seemed to me that most of the goods were displayed in the first act, the climax of which was an immensely complicated coup de theatre in which two players contrived to attend separate and simultaneous dinner parties.
'Is it, do you suppose,' I asked John Jonas, who drives me around on these occasions and nurses me through the performances I do decide to give, 'is it, do you suppose, too clever by half?' Mr Jonas on this occasion seemed not to share my anxiety. 'A thoroughly good evening,' he insisted on the way home. 'I don't know why you didn't enjoy it more.'
I think it was his enthusiasm as much as anything else that decided me to go ahead. It was after all an even money chance, and this has always seemed generous odds to me. I had certain reservations, and having told Peter Bridge that I was game at least up to a point, hoped for the next couple of weeks to get the play altered, but found Alan Ayckbourn, the author, fairly obdurate and inclined to prefer his own ideas to mine.
I started out by demanding that the baby in the play should be replaced by an elkhound, and that I should be encouraged to participate in the celebrated dinner scene dressed in Japanese costume. Both suggestions were resisted tooth and nail, and on reflection correctly. After two years I can't pretend to have made much of Alan Ayckbourn, an eminently cautious fellow, not given to hanging round the cast, remembering the anniversaries of the play or bunching his leading ladies. About his play's quite phenomenal success he evinces little emotion, hugging himself, if he does so at all, in secret.
Having got me to agree to do the play, Peter Bridge's immediate tasks were to find the money and the theatre with which, and in which, to present
How The Other Half Loves. The money presented no problem. There was an embarrassment of would-be investors. All he had to do was to circularise the list of prospective backers with which all managers provide themselves, and the £18,000 for which he asked to mount the production was subscribed overnight. The Angels on this occasion smelt success. Both the author and myself had been previous winners over the course, and almost uniquely Peter was able to produce two notices written by national critics on the strength of the Leicester production, predicting a London success for the play when it was eventually produced there. You could hardly ask for more, and no one did. Indeed one of the backers, Eddie Kulukundis, of whom we shall hear more later, wanted to provide all the capital required from his own pocket.
Without the Sunday notices written by Ronald Bryden (The Observer) and Frank Marcus (Sunday Telegraph) it is possible that nothing much more would ever have been heard of the play after Leicester. The local notices for the piece were not particularly encouraging, and interest in a London production had all but ceased.
The problem of obtaining a suitable West End theatre was, as usual, more complicated….
Bridge was now free to proceed at his peril, the date when he would be able to conclude negotiations for a theatre some weeks off, and with no guarantee that he would get one at all, should business in the West End suddenly spurt. He could find himself, as he did with his recent production of
On The Rocks, up in the clouds circling the airport without permission to land, and if the tour proved financially disastrous, running out of gas.
Rehearsals began on my birth­day at the Irish Club. I had not then, and still haven't, the faintest idea what normally goes on at the Irish Club, apart from the sale of the Irish Times in the hall, but I climbed the stairs to the room reserved for the first rehearsal and found Bridge had invited a few press photographers along for a drink and the hope that they would take pictures of myself cutting my birthday cake. There is surely no duller subject for portraiture, or one an editor is more easily able to reject, than an actor poised over confectionery, but the attempt has to be made….
It was at the first rehearsal that I met Eddie Kulukundis and learnt he was to be a partner in the enterprise which Bridge, possibly scenting battle, had christened Agincourt Productions Ltd. My first impression was that of a large, untidy and likeable Greek who was constantly ducking his head in a basin, not to cool it, but to get his hair to lie down.
His recent impact on theatre-land was already proving sensational. Word had got round that there was a stranger in town and back at the old saloon they were busy polishing the glasses and getting out the old deck of cards. Here was a tenderfoot aiming to join in the poker game and there was no lack of players anxious for him to draw up a chair and sweeten the pot….
When I asked Bridge why we were rehearsing at the Irish Club, he told me proudly that coming up from Berkshire every morning I would find it easier to park. 'On the first night,' I told him, 'I am expected to make a speech excusing our state of unprepared-ness on the grounds that we are all keen motorists?' I hate rehearsing in rooms as opposed to on stage. I find the space confining, the stage management sits on top of you, prompt book in hand, my mind wanders, reflecting on the decor, marvelling that people normally carouse in these surroundings, give wedding receptions and children's parties. Public rooms are haunted for me by the ghosts of failed functions.
I seldom enjoy myself at rehearsals. I am back in the classroom I so hated: the director is a beak, sometimes a decent beak, but a beak nevertheless. This is his hour, his month in fact. We normally rehearse for about that long. He is here to see we do the work as he wishes it done. Some actors suck up to the master, follow him around, take his hand on the walk, call him Sir, bring him flowers. I am not one of them. Between him and me there is always hostility of a kind often manufactured by myself. I am stimulated by conflict, like to be the one who hurls the rubber while he is intent on the blackboard….
I like a director to take my side. I demand it. My current task-master, Robin Midgley, took my side from the first.
I've got so old now that I am no longer a challenge to directors, just something they wish they could move around and can't. Which is not to say I don't make concessions; on this occasion I made one or two. I didn't interfere with the casting, except to insist that Joan Tetzel played my wife. No one seemed all that keen, not even Tetzel. She had done
The Little Hut with me, so was more or less prepared….
As is usually the case with playwrights who deliver their plays into my hands, Ayckbourn began to grow restless quite early on. He had already seen his play rehearsed twice before and had fairly set notions of what it was all about. At the back of his mind, as indeed is nearly always at the back of authors' minds, was the idea that he had written a more significant play than I supposed. Moreover he insisted that all the characters except perhaps my own were fundamentally unlikable.
This didn't do for Tetzel. She was not, as far as she was concerned, playing a bitch and had no intention of doing so. The final confrontation was to come later at Leeds, but meanwhile there was a certain amount of muttering on both sides. I have always held that to make a steady income in our business, which should be all actors' ambition, one cannot afford to play unsympathetic parts. However much praise is lavished on you by the critics, the audience gradually comes to associate you with the unlikable characteristics you have assumed in the cause of art. After a time they simply won't pay to go and see you. With the notable exception of Vincent Price, who keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek, few heavies grow rich. Tetzel and I were quite determined on this point. 'If they don't like us,' we told Ayckbourn, 'they won't come, and where will your little play be then?'
The other leading lady, Heather Sears, seemed much more disposed to go along with the author than we were. Heather, and subsequently Mary Miller who took over from her after a few months, both believed they were in a piece which had something to say quite apart from the laughs. They both spent considerable time with the director establishing the character. They were ready to discuss, for instance, whether the girl they were portraying read the Guardian before the New Statesman, and how many goldfish should be in the goldfish bowl, and the sort of toys they would provide for that off-stage baby. By this I don't mean they inaugurated the discussions or wasted time unduly, but they chatted around with Midgley whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Midgley is a great chatter, but he is also a workmanlike director who runs a very successful theatre in Leicester and knows the curtain has to go up some time. On the whole he held the balance fairly between those who wished to find truth in the play and those who wanted to know where to stand, or more important perhaps, where the others in the cast were intending to stand.
Donald Burton played Heather's husband, and I never quite understood where he stood. He always arrived at rehearsal carrying a furled umbrella which was also a sword-stick, and with a scarf tied high round his neck, reminding me of the late Queen Alexandra masking the dewlaps. He is a very good actor who also, as far as I am concerned, breaks all the rules in that he insists on altering his appearance for each role he undertakes. In my view quite fatal. They must know who you are and what you are going to do as soon as you step on the stage in my book. Burton on the other hand seems to invite them to ask which part he played.
Donald's great passion in life seems to be lighting. I don't mean what most actors mean by lighting, how many of the spots one can appropriate, I mean domestic lighting. He claimed to be able to lie in his bath and adjust the dimmers so that the perfect Mediterranean effect was achieved on the soap suds. I was always taught not to fiddle with current in the bath, but he seemed to come to no harm. Similarly from his bed erotic effects could be created, and even the dawn simulated when it was time for the guest to leave.
I hoped he'd ask me round; don't think he liked me very much. Perhaps he realised I would never be able to discuss dimmers seriously. I like the lights full up all the time, but will allow imaginative directors to keep them low until I burst into view, after which the rule, if I am allowed to make it, is light, light and still more light.
The other two members of the cast were Brian Miller and Eliza­beth Ashton. Both having been in the original production at Scarborough, Alan decided that the parts could never conceivably be better played than by them, and he was right. They knew exactly what they were up to from the very beginning, refused to be swayed or disturbed by the uncertain manoeuvring of the rest of us and held firm. I cannot imagine what would have happened to the play without them. The rest of us used them, and still do, as anchor buoys.
After a week rehearsals moved to the Haymarket, where Midgley could sit in the stalls and leave us to get on with it. But for some reason he seemed to prefer a chair at the side of the stage. I have never known a director who sat so long on top of a company. Otherwise I had no fault to find with him, or with the script.
Normally I am a glutton for rewriting, but after my initial failure with this piece I thought it best to bide my time, say the lines the author had written and only when I found they didn't work with an audience, get him to alter them or preferably alter them myself. Directing is like cooking in the sense that all the dishes should ideally come to perfection at the same moment. Some actors boil almost immediately, while others take ages to rise.
There comes a time too when all of us demand an audience. 'Mummy, watch me,' we cry, and if Mummy isn't planning to visit the nursery for another week, the squabbles are liable to start. At the end of the month we were just about ready. The curtains had been drawn, the stage set. Arrayed in our costumes, we awaited the arrival of the grown-ups. They could hardly have been more appreciative in Leeds had they in fact been our relatives. We didn't pack the theatre, but business built, and we were complimented in teashops. There is nothing the English dislike more than having to talk to people they haven't met. When happens to an actor, he knows he is on a winner….
One morning saw a glorious row on the stage. A last attempt by the director and the author to get Tetzel to play it tough. She held firm. 'Do you mean to tell me,' asked Robin, 'that you are not going to play the part as we wish it played?' 'Yes. If you want it played that way, you must get someone else.' 'Two someone elses,' I told them, relishing the confrontation. That was the end, more or less….
After a fortnight we moved to Nottingham…. It is in Nottingham that I hear Bridge has been offered the Lyric [theatre]….
We still had three more weeks on the road, Wimbledon and Brighton, but these passed uneventfully, There was not a lot more rehearsing to be done, and no rewrites. Everything would now depend on the first night at the Lyric.
The first night of a play in Lon­don is still a formidable obstacle, the Beechers Brook of the National course. In recent years attempts have been made to modify the jump somewhat. The supreme confrontation is no longer sought by management, as used to be the case.
Before the war, when the theatre catered largely for the stalls public, managers regarded their first night list as all important, and spent hours at work on the Sheet. The idea was to seat the critics in warm nests of appreciation, although taking care they should not be irritated by loud laughter and bursts of applause while they themselves were scribbling notes in the dusk….
But the days when first nights were great social occasions is over. In point of fact nowadays it is quite difficult to fill the house at all, and after the friends of the cast have been accommodated, the manager may be hard put to it to find a representative audience and not one composed almost exclusively of fellow managers, agents, film producers and television directors who have seen it all before and are not all that keen to see it again. This is one of the reasons why previews are encouraged. The actors get a chance of playing themselves in and the professionally interested need no longer all come on the same evening.
On the whole,
How The Other Half Loves at the Lyric Theatre on the night of 5 August 1970 played much as it had been playing for the last six weeks and the notices, when they appeared, were with one exception uniformly encouraging. Only Harold Hobson in the Sunday Times was unwontedly abrasive. He reported that most of the cast gave performances which looked as if they had been recruited from the rejects of the annual pantomime in a backward village, or could he have written originally a backwoods village? We shall never know. By the time his notice appeared we were home and dried.

Copyright: Robert Morley. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.