Relatively Speaking: The Aftermath (2009)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published to mark the 40th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn's How The Other Half Loves in 2009. It explores the effect the original West End production and its star Robert Morley had on Alan Ayckbourn's London career.

“I’ve left a trail of sadder but far, far richer playwrights behind me”

These are the infamously perceptive words of the actor Robert Morley to the young playwright Alan Ayckbourn following the success of
How The Other Half Loves in London. For years afterwards, the play was associated with the exuberant actor and thought of as little more than a clever farce with little cerebral content to it. Morley may have made Alan financially richer, but was there a dramatic cost?
The noted critic and Ayckbourn-observer Michael Billington strongly believes the popularity and success of the play did Alan few favours in the long run.

“But precisely because, with [Relatively Speaking] and How The Other Half Loves, Ayckbourn established himself as a commercial goldmine and a bankable talent it led, I believe, to a serious underestimation of his real worth. Nothing in England arouses more suspicion, particularly amongst the intellectual classes, than popularity. Any dramatist who has the capacity to keep large numbers of people amused or preoccupied is automatically branded as second-rate. Not only was Ayckbourn popular: he actually wrote comedies, which was further proof that he was Division Two stuff not to be ranked with the big boys like Osborne, Pinter, Arden, Wesker, Storey.”

Could things have been different? Potentially. As Billington points out,
How The Other Half Loves became popularly regarded as another light comedy in the vein of Relatively Speaking, largely thanks to Morley, doing both the playwright and the play a disservice as Billington writes.

“Initially the true nature of the play was somewhat obscured in London by Robert Morley’s idiosyncratic star performance. Ayckbourn is basically an ensemble writer: his work needs to be performed either by a permanent company or by stars of equal weight. When Peter Bridge cast Robert Morley in the role of Frank Foster in the initial London production, the play inevitably changed its character.”

To stay with Billington, it is worth asking what he felt the true nature of the play was and what the critics missed during the original London run.

“Ayckbourn’s technical legerdemain - comparable to anything in Goldoni’s The Servant Of Two Masters - was not an end in itself: it was a means of exploring the impact of class, income and education on sexual behaviour. As time went by, it would become even clearer that Ayckbourn was infinitely more than a supplier of amiable divertissements.”

Morley was a powerful and popular force in the theatre, but as a result had undue influence on the play. As he himself would have conceded, by this stage in his career audiences were coming to see him and not necessarily the play. This could put immense strain on any play as the actor took huge liberties, as Alan Ayckbourn notes.

“He always treats the theatre as one huge game organised by himself. The joy of the man is that he does have great enjoyment for what he does, an infectious, playful enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the people who suffer are the people who are on stage with him, or who are attempting to get on stage with him. And there's a few working actors ploughing doggedly through their script, clutching on to their characterisation, which he almost delights in bombarding and trying to upset - hiding their props and locking the door and jumping out at them from cupboards. Which is all right but it tends to make them look awfully ropey. It also tends to make the play look a little bit ropey. In the case of How The Other Half Loves, he tended to improvise round the theme quite a lot, but - because it was such a complex plot - he was unable to do perhaps as much as he would like to have done with it…. With How The Other Half Loves, I didn't actually go to see it after a bit, because there was no point in getting unnecessarily upset. I was a younger, more vulnerable author then. The night I did see it, I was terribly upset, because nothing seemed to be as we had originally arranged it.”

During rehearsals, Ayckbourn would apparently “sit rather quietly and weep in corners” whilst the director Robin Midgley clashed with Morley, who attempted to impose his own vision of the play. It is hard to know now what the audiences witnessed in London, but one suspects it wasn’t quite the play about marital discord imagined by Alan Ayckbourn.

“[Morley] is in a sense an actor-manager. He wanted all the parts played as he wanted to play it. Now that wasn't necessarily the way that Robin wanted them or I wanted them. Fiona, in How The Other Half Loves, is really a quite vicious character: she's not as vicious as some of her later versions, but she's an unfaithful wife who deceives her husband and plays a very sly game. Robert wouldn't have any of that. Her attitude to her husband up to the end was one of crushing and withering sarcasm a lot of the time. Robert insisted that anyone who was on stage with him should look as if they loved him…. I remember him quite vehemently saying, 'Look, nobody wants to come to the theatre and see people squabbling' - which dismissed about three-quarters of English drama, I should have thought. But he said, 'We don't want all these nasty cross people, and people shouting at each other.' A lot of How The Other Half Loves is about people getting extremely angry with each other, and when you get into the realms of Bob and Terry, whose whole relationship is teetering on the edge of disaster, and you start laying down the law and saying, 'No, you must love each other', then you aren't left with a lot of the mainspring of the play.”

Many of the London critics were not terribly kind to the dialogue, but judging by this, it is extremely hard to know how much of Alan’s original script and intentions were left by the time Morley had finished with the play. The damage to Ayckbourn’s fledgling reputation summarised by the noted critic John Russell Taylor who did not know whether Alan qualified “as a ‘new dramatist’ or must be written down as a crass conservative sublimely irrelevant.” Taylor’s writing at the time clearly indicates he favoured the latter.
Yet it might have been so different. Prior to the West End opening, there was a try-out of the play in Leicester without star names, directed by Midgley, and which received extremely positive reviews, ironically leading to the decision to take the play to London and the casting of Robert Morley by the show’s producer Peter Bridge. Surviving reviews of the Leicester production from The Observer, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph indicate a play that was appreciated far more for its innovation and characterisation. With an ensemble company, the critics picked up on the subtleties of the play which were lost in London:

“The opportunities for comparative observation of subtle differences of behaviour, dictated by class, age, money and - by implication - political affiliation are great, and Mr Ayckbourn uses them with unfailing economy and effect (Frank Marcus, Sunday Telegraph)."

“[Ayckbourn] also shows himself adept at reproducing the vapid and inane conversation of embarrassed people, his characters being embarrassed most of the time (B.A. Young, Financial Times).”

Arguably, the critics in Scarborough and Leister had a far better perception of the play than their apparently more experienced West End counterparts. This perhaps best illustrated by the fact Alan’s adroit use of stage space and time was patently obvious and worthy of mention in most of the pre-West End reviews; an aspect of the play which Alan was amazed to find was apparently lost on the West End critics.

“One of the most extraordinary things about the whole West End experience, the first time around, was that while it contained elaborately sophisticated time shifts, and was an extraordinary piece of staging - with that superimposed stage - not a single critic, to my knowledge, ever mentioned it. So something had got blurred! It's not normal, I'd have thought - it certainly wasn't normal in our time - for people to do English light comedy with superimposed time scales and, at one point, there were three sets of people on stage, two of them living at different time levels and one pair living at both time levels. It really is quite complicated, and nobody even mentioned it.”

In truth, some critics did pick up on this but it was largely dismissed as a gimmick around which the play hung. Of course, what surrounded the structure was precisely what was lost through Morley’s interpretation of the play.
The result of this must have been disappointing to the playwright. In the aftermath of
How The Other Half Loves, Alan found huge success - not to be knocked - but was routinely dismissed as no more than a clever farceur. It is extraordinary to think his next two plays Time And Time Again and Absurd Person Singular, which laid the foundations of Alan’s tragi-comic themes, were regarded in the same farcical vein as Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves. Indeed when plays such as Just Between Ourselves could not be comfortably put into Alan’s allotted box, there was much debate as to why he was trying to move away from his roots as a comic playwright and whether he should be doing this; despite the fact that to most seasoned observers of his work, Alan’s plays had been heading in this direction since Time And Time Again six years earlier. Arguably, it would be the 1980s before Alan would be seriously regarded as being much more than farceur by many major critics.
Yet how different this might have been had
How The Other Half Loves been presented as intended and the producer had the confidence to install an ensemble cast in the London production. It is hard to argue the play would not have been as much a success as Relatively Speaking, if not quite of the same magnitude. The pay-off would have been a comedy perhaps recognised for its technical innovation, social observation and biting comment on relationships that were all to become Alan’s hallmarks.

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