How The Other Half Loves: Background

In 1967, Alan Ayckbourn achieved overnight success when Relatively Speaking opened in London’s West End (although only in the sense he was relatively unknown the day before it opened and a lot more famous the day after it opened). As a result of this, there was considerable interest in its successor which opened three years later in London. The play was How The Other Half Loves and it proved Alan Ayckbourn was far from a one-hit-wonder and had the makings of a playwriting force to be reckoned with.

The success of
Relatively Speaking came while Alan was working as a radio drama producer for the BBC in Leeds, a job he had held since 1965 following the devastating critical reaction to his first London production Mr Whatnot. In the interim, he had written The Sparrow which premiered in Scarborough’s Library Theatre in July 1967. The play was very different in tone to its predecessor and failed to impress his London producer Peter Bridge who chose to option the play but not to actually stage it, which led Alan to later wonder - particularly when Bridge did not rush to pick up How The Other Half Loves either - whether the producer was “waiting for an exact carbon copy of Relatively Speaking.”

At this point, the Library Theatre was being loosely run by Ken Boden, Alfred Bradley, Rodney Wood and Alan. The death of
Stephen Joseph, the theatre’s founder, in 1967, had left the theatre in a precarious position. In December 1968, Alan was asked by the theatre board to take on the annually appointed position of Director Of Productions for the 1969 season and, as a result, agreed to also write and direct a new play for the summer season. The theatre’s position was so precarious, the board could not afford to pay Alan for the new play, instead offering him free accommodation in a flat for the summer.

During this period, Alan juggled his time between Leeds and Scarborough mixing the two jobs as best he could. The new play,
How The Other Half Loves, was announced in May on posters for the season declaring: “World premiere of a new comedy by the author of the West End hit Relatively Speaking. This is his sixth play written specially for Scarborough.” With no actual play-script to guide them, there was little to do but trade on Alan’s name and the success of Relatively Speaking.

When Alan eventually came to write the play, as rehearsals approached in June, he was largely inspired by circumstance. At the time he was living in a council flat in Leeds, one of many identical flats. The inter-changeability of the rooms, differentiated only by their furnishings, would play an obvious role in the play as he explored the use of space and time on stage. Other influences in shaping the play, according to Alan, were: “being drawn into the comet’s tail of somebody else’s breaking marriage” and a desire to “write a play which highlighted different and contrasting social lifestyles.”

The play opened on 31 July 1969 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, performed in-the-round and the next day, the Scarborough Evening News declared the play “hilarious”. In the same review, Alan was quoted with an eye to pulling in fans of its famed predecessor. “I suppose it’s inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between this and
Relatively Speaking. In fact, it is an exploration of the same sort of theme, but with a few decided differences.” Other reviews of the play are scarce, but in correspondence Alan noted: “Reviews have been pretty good - Guardian (aside from a rather snide sentence), Yorkshire Post, Express and the locals.” The premiere was also attended by Alan’s London producer Peter Bridge who felt it had “all the makings of another Relatively Speaking”; although later actions would betray his discomfort with certain aspects of the play.

Bridge’s reaction to the play was largely predicted by Alan’s agent
Margaret Ramsay - better known as Peggy - after she had read the script. She liked the play but wondered whether it was suitable for the proscenium arch and, as a result, whether Peter Bridge would be really interested in the piece. In hindsight, this was perhaps the first indication that Peter Bridge’s tenure as Alan’s producer was not going to be a long term affair. In fact, it would unravel throughout the course of How The Other Half Loves and it was the final Ayckbourn play he would produce.

Although
How The Other Half Loves got off to a smooth start in Scarborough, disaster struck soon after its opening. Alan had returned to Leeds only to receive a phone call on the following Monday from his stage manager. Jeremy Franklin, the actor playing Frank Foster, had slipped a disc and was in Scarborough Hospital in traction for two weeks. Alan rushed back to Scarborough and took to the stage for that evening’s performance, somewhat ironically having to read from the book. All seemed fine until, alarmingly, as the play reached its climax Alan discovered his script was missing pages. “I distinguished myself… by actually losing several pages during the action and having to ad-lib a scene, My fellow actors confronted by the sight of the author-director in full-flow, spouting fresh dialogue, stood uncertainly about convinced that these must be new re-writes about which they hadn’t been told. I later rushed off, jotted it down and it’s in there somewhere to this day.”

The next day, Alan learnt the part afresh and performed it for the remaining three performances that week. Fortunately, the play was in repertory and was not due to return for another two weeks, by which point Jeremy Franklin had recovered and returned to the role. It was only four performances, but five years after he had officially retired from acting,
How The Other Half Loves proved to be Alan’s ultimate acting swan-song.

Relatively Speaking had been the first of Alan’s plays to be published and even before the new play’s initial run had concluded, the publisher Evans had expressed interest in publishing it “before, during or after it opens in the West End.” This put Alan in a tricky situation as Evans had taken the better part of two years to produce a largely incompetent edition of Relatively Speaking, destroying the only prompt script in the process. Peggy was not convinced they were the right company to print the play and certainly not before it had gone to the West End. Yet Alan was not convinced Peter Bridge was going to option the play for the West End and informed Peggy that publication should be allowed as he would be “glad for any money I can get from the play.” Peggy needn’t have worried, it only took Evans three years to publish the play, the company admitting even as the long-running London production came to a close, they had “no idea” when it would be published. Evans would not be allowed to publish a third Ayckbourn play.

Of more pressing concern was the fact that by early-September 1969, Peter Bridge had still not optioned the play. Alan had a hit and miss record with Bridge and was worried this play might be lost. “People I know reckon it could be a winner and I’m very anxious it shouldn’t go the way of
The Sparrow, Standing Room Only or even Mr Whatnot!” In an attempt to mollify Alan, Bridge signed a contract on 19 September but was then ominously silent about his intentions, leading Alan to despair in November that he could “only assume that he’s [Bridge] cooled off on this one as well…. I must say I find the ecstatic almost festive air of congratulations which surrounded Relatively Speaking in bewildering contrast to the total disinterest for the latest one.”

The problem was, as Peggy had predicted, Bridge was having problems persuading London managements the play could work in the proscenium arch. Even its eventual director Robin Midgley had major problems with the play’s mechanics as Alan recalls: “Robin had spent about 10 days drawing up designs to see how he could do this scene. He looked at me with a haunted expression and said: ‘All right - I give up. How do you do the dinner scene?’ I said 1,2,3,4 - like that - and Robin said: ‘Why didn’t you put it in the script?’” Eventually, Bridge, Peggy and Alan agreed that the best solution was to do a try-out to prove the play could work - even though Peggy wasn’t convinced that Bridge now had the finances to mount a London production should one ever be agreed.

By February 1970, Bridge had organised a venue for the try-out at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, with Robin Midgley directing. The production opened on 19 March and was an instant success. The critics gave it a thumbs-up, their general mood summed up by The Observer’s critique that the play was “even funnier than his
Relatively Speaking which is to call it very funny indeed” and that London managements were at fault for not picking up the play immediately. While the critics applauded, Alan was still not satisfied with the play and altered the ending for a second time, having already altered it after its initial run in Scarborough.

The play’s success in Leicester was undeniable, but Bridge still had issues with both the set and the cast. Although to some degree, these were also echoed by Alan who felt there were “certain errors in casting, directing, setting and in some cases writing.” Alan believed the play could work though, more so than Bridge who seemed to be trying to justify the play when he wrote “the show has worked twice which means we can approach it with considerably more confidence.”

Again, the producer’s actions spoke louder than words as by the end of April, there was still no news on a London production and the option on the play was due for renewal. Peggy reluctantly agreed to extend it until October 1970, but warned Bridge it would not be extended any further. He, meanwhile, had began negotiations with another producer Eddie Kulukundis to help finance the show eventually leading to them becoming co-managers of the London production.

With finances now in place, work began in earnest on producing the play in the West End - but not without casualties. The success of the Leicester production was not enough to save any of the cast or the designer, Franco Colavecchia, who was replaced by Alan Tagg. Bridge also wanted a marquee star for the play and had his eyes set on one of the biggest names in theatre, Robert Morley. Morley was an extremely popular actor who had found fame both on screen and stage and whose presence in a play was guaranteed to draw in the audiences; if only for him rather than the play. Morley was interested but wanted to make changes to the play and so an unimpressed Alan accompanied Bridge and Midgley to the actor’s home in Henley. Morley had an exuberant love of his profession and also strong ideas about comedy, resulting in several forceful suggestions to Alan about how the play could be funnier, including suggestions that Frank should be a flower-arranger rather than a jogger and that he should have a butler. The meeting apparently ended with the following exchange by Alan, which Paul Allen reports in his official biography of Alan,
Grinning At The Edge.

Robert Morley: 'I think I’m losing patience with this little script. I think I want to do something else.'
Alan Ayckbourn: 'Fine, you do that.'

The bluff called, Alan agreed to several small changes but was dismayed to see that many of Morley’s ideas were incorporated into his final performance anyway.

From the start of rehearsals, Morley dominated proceedings and was frequently at loggerheads with Midgley as he tried to impose his vision on the play, regardless of whether it was shared by director or author. Morley insisted Joan Tetzel was cast as his wife - who had last appeared in the West End twenty years earlier also as Morley's wife in
The Little Hut - despite the ambiguity she was clearly an American. Yet he soon found himself unable to work with her during rehearsals and she was later recast. His personal views also meant the portrayal of the Fosters was irrevocably damaged anyway as he insisted there should be no marital conflict, despite the obvious fact this was the nub of the play! Alan watched from the sidelines, painfully aware that Morley would be both a huge draw for the box office but that his play was going to be lost along the way.

How The Other Half Loves was launched on a pre-West End tour on 23 June 1970, at the Grand Opera House, Leeds. From there it travelled to Nottingham, Wimbledon and Brighton. It opened at the Lyric Theatre on 5 August 1970 to excellent reviews and stunning box office receipts. Relatively Speaking had been a phenomenal success for Alan, but it would be over-shadowed by the new play. How The Other Half Loves ran for 869 performances until 30 September 1972, before immediately touring to Canada and Australia. In many ways it cemented Alan’s credentials as an exciting and popular playwright, but at what cost?

Morley’s casting has transformed it into the antithesis of an Ayckbourn play; it was now a star vehicle rather than an ensemble piece (and it should be noted that on the page, the character of Frank Foster has no more lines than any of the other characters). Morley’s often unsuitable ad-libbing emphasised the actor and Alan hated the production, even becoming physically sick during one performance. Yet he was not naïve and acknowledged there was trade-off. “Eighty per cent of the audience had paid to see Robert Morley, and I, as an unknown dramatist, had really no right to stand between that process if I wanted to take the money.”

As the noted critic Michael Billington would later argue, the success of this production blighted both the perception of the play’s merits and, arguably, of Alan’s skills as a playwright. The ingenuity of the play was largely ignored by the critics with all attention on Morley and it became considered as a farce and Alan as a successful farceur, a label that would haunt him for many years to come. Only later would critics come to consider the piece on its own terms and discover there was far more to it than a larger than life actor. Morley was unrepentant and later told Alan: “I’ve left a trail of sadder but far, far richer playwrights behind me”

The perception of the piece as a star vehicle had immediate consequences as it became a lot more attractive to American managements, who began to show interest in the play following its success in London with Morley. Bridge was quick to capitalise on this and plans for an American production came together considerably more quickly than the London one. Phil Silvers, best known as television’s
Sergeant Bilko, was brought on board to play Frank with Gene Saks directing the play. He decided to relocate the action to America and asked Alan to help Americanise the script. Alan was closely involved with the production and flew over to work with Saks with mixed results. “With [Gene Saks’] advice I Americanised the script myself. It didn’t help the play, in retrospect…. So the version was an unhappy compromise in many ways, although it worked, up to a point. The plot was the strong thing, and the machinations of that, and that certainly worked.” The substantive alterations to the play can be seen in the American acting edition which was published for many years by Samuel French, before the original text was made the standard edition. In fact, it was not until 1993 - 24 years after its premiere - that a production of the play was staged in New York using the original British text.

Meanwhile, the original American production was premiered in Palm Beach, Florida, but no seats had been reserved for either Alan or Saks. They watched the play, perched on two stools on a catwalk which ran behind the balcony lighting, peering through a safety mesh! The play opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on 29 March 1971 and received a mixed critical reaction with the executive producer Tom Erhardt commenting the reviews tended to be “diametrically opposed”. Despite this, the show ran for 108 performances until 26 June 1971 and whilst not an unmitigated success, it did enough business to make Alan’s name familiar in New York and helped towards the revival of the career of Phil Silvers.

That was the silver lining of an expensive cloud though; later that year Variety reported the play had lost $170,000 and was a contributing factor to some severe financial difficulties which would affect Bridge’s company Agincourt and lead very palpably to Alan’s plays moving to other producers.

Back in England, the play’s successful run in London came to a close in September 1972 and - predictably - there was high demand for both a touring production and from the repertory theatres wanting to mount their own productions. This highlighted a significant problem for the playwright as such strong demand often led to conflict between the touring producer and the reps. Bill Kenwright was producing the first tour and quickly brought to Peggy’s attention scheduling conflicts which he felt would damage the tour’s success. Alan was in a no-win situation, but did feel too much emphasis was placed on tours which could take as much as six months after a play closed in London to begin; a long time for a successful play to go unperformed, particularly when it was in high demand. Despite the conflict, Bill Kenwright’s tour opened in March 1973 with Derek Bond and Miriam Karlin, roughly at the same time as the reps began producing the play.

Such success was always going to attract the attention of television and film companies. As early as March 1970, a representative from Paramount films had seen the play in London and in May 1973, the BBC expressed interest in filming it but were turned down by Peggy due to contractual rights. Peggy was later approached in 1975 by Anglia Television about an adaptation, although Peggy noted that none of the people approaching her seemed to have made any consideration of the particular problems this play raised in successfully adapting it into another media. The final nail in this particular coffin was an interest shown by Robin Midgley in recreating the West End version of the play for the small screen, complete with Robert Morley. Alan was not amused: “The Midgley / Morley combo could, at best, only reproduce the Lyric version on screen and that is not something I wish to inflict on several million homes at this time of National crisis.”

In 1976, the play’s reputation underwent a welcome re-evaluation thanks largely to a production by the Actors Company at Wimbledon Theatre. Formed in 1972, the company was an actor driven organisation with an aim to democratise the theatre-producing experience. Their version of
How The Other Half Loves, directed by Kim Grant, was well-received by critics, who began to notice that not only was this an ensemble piece, but a technically ingenious piece which also had a more cutting social commentary than had previously been noted. The continued popularity of the play led to the producer Bill Kenwright proposing a revival in London in 1978, but the recent success of the Actors’ Company production combined with the sheer volume of Ayckbourn material in the West End led to the idea being hastily rebuffed.

The play would not be revived in London until 1988 when Bill Kenwright transferred Alan Strachan’s successful production at the Greenwich Theatre to the Duke Of York’s Theatre. This was notably the first of Alan’s plays to be revived in the commercial West End and Strachan had had considerable experience directing Alan’s plays. It ran from 14 June to 26 November and again was favourably received by the critics.

Since then the play has continued to be popular with amateur and professional companies. It is unusual for an Ayckbourn play of that period in that it has never been adapted for television or the radio, but it’s unique technical challenges probably mean it is best left untouched by other media. It is now regarded among the most popular of Ayckbourn plays and relieved of the baggage of Robert Morley’s presence, it is more favourably judged in the Ayckbourn canon.

The play’s popularity was confirmed in 2007 when The Peter Hall Company revived it at the Theatre Royal, Bath, before taking it on tour. This production was again directed by Alan Strachan and received glowing reviews from the major critics. Combined with Alan Strachan’s similarly acclaimed revival of
Absurd Person Singular in the West End later that same year, it combined to bring Alan’s early work back into the spotlight and demonstrate that despite their age, when directed and acted as intended, they were still relevant, funny and popular plays. Hopes that the tour might transfer to the West End were unfortunately never fulfilled due to the potential conflict with Absurd Person Singular’s West End run.

In 2009,
How The Other Half Loves celebrated its 40th anniversary, which was marked by a revival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Alan Ayckbourn directed the play for the first time since its world premiere in 1969 and it was a success both with critics and audiences; although the playwright felt the production was slightly compromised by having to share a company with that of the new Artistic Director Chris Monk's production of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates Of Penzance.

Having directed the 1988 West End revival and Theatre Royal Bath's acclaimed 2007 revival of
How The Other Half Loves, Alan Strachan returned to the West End with the play in 2016 marking the first major West End revival of an Ayckbourn play since the National Theatre's production of A Small Family Business two years earlier. The production, featuring Nicholas le Provost as Frank, was critically acclaimed receiving plaudits both for the script, company and direction; the production was successful enough to have an extended run moving from the Theatre Royal Haymarket to the Duke Of York's Theatre for an extra 12 weeks. The same production - albeit with a different cast will also tour during autumn 2017.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.