Matthew Cottle and Sara Crowe are here this month in How The Other Half Loves. They play married couple William and Mary Featherstone, stuck in the middle of two warring couples, falsely accused of adultery and setting off for a pair of disastrous dinner parties.
Matthew (who starred during the play’s West End run) and Sara (who you might recognise from her role as ‘first bride’ Laura in Four Weddings and a Funeral) tell us what they love about Alan Ayckbourn’s work, and why they’re so keen to come to Norwich.
How would you sum up William and Mary?
Matthew: William is a very uptight little man who is quite sanctimonious around his boss. He wants to achieve more, get a pay rise and go up a level.
Sara: Mary is known as Mary the Mouse. She’s a shy character who over the course of the play comes out of herself a little bit more, but she finds all this socialising absolutely mortifying.
And what’s the dynamic between them in the play?
Matthew: William thinks Mary is holding him back a little bit. He’s a little creep and a little Hitler really, who does thing like slap his wife’s hand when she’s done something wrong.
Sara: Mary is very bullied by her husband, kind of under the thumb, so she’s a very sympathetic character.
Why do you think Alan Ayckbourn is so revered as a playwright?
Matthew: He gets marriage; he nails what it’s about so people come along and they recognise their own marriages, their own husbands, their own wives, their own situations. He takes very real people and puts them in sometimes heightened situations, but there’s a definite recognition there. He writes very much how people speak. I’ve always found his plays quite easy to learn actually because it’s how we talk.
Sara: It’s a sort of comedy of recognition in that everybody can relate to the relationships. They’re just so clear. He’s got such a sharp eye on relationships between men and women. It makes you laugh, but it’s also very insightful. He’s got a sort of razor-like beam on things.
Why do you think How The Other Half Loves remains one of his most beloved works?
Matthew; It’s got a very famous scene where there are two dinner parties happening on consecutive nights but they’re played out at the same time on stage. It becomes a very farcical, heightened scene that’s one of his most famous scenes and if done well is very, very funny. I think it’s a big reason why this show, which was one of his first big hits, is so popular.
Sara: It’s almost like a farce and possibly that’s why it’s endured. It’s very, very funny – particularly the dinner scene because it starts off being very naturalistic, then it spirals into complete chaos. Also I think people love to watch the concept of two dinner parties that happen on separate nights happening simultaneously on stage.
Matthew, you played William in the 2016 revival. How is it revisiting the role with a different cast?
Matthew: It was funny coming back to the same part with different people. It took me a day or two to get used to it, but it’s such a strong cast and I’m loving it. Everyone brings a different energy and a different timing. They’re the same lines but they’re said in a different way and you have to react to the way the person is saying that line to you. I’m really excited about this cast. I think it’s terrific.
Sara, you were also in Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular and The Constant Wife. What draws you to his work?
Sara: I love playing in Alan Ayckbourn’s stuff, although it’s very difficult to learn because you’re constantly being cut off or cutting someone else off and you never quite finish a sentence. And it’s conversational so learning it is like a word search because there are about 14 options for every one word you might say.
Are there any particular challenges How The Other Half Loves presents for you as actors?
Matthew: The immediate challenge is that dinner party scene. It’s a mind-blower for me and my on-stage wife because it’s so fast and becomes incredibly frenetic. It gets faster and faster and the challenge is learning the cues for that. You say something, put a glass of wine down, swivel, somebody says something, you swivel back – you’re going from a moment where you’re having a lovely time to a nightmare. That’s the immediate challenge but also the most fun to play once you’re on top of it.
Sara: Matthew and I have to swivel between one dinner party and another on different cues. I’m having to learn when to swivel. [Laughs] I’ve never swivelled before!
How is it working with director Alan Strachan, especially given his close ties with Ayckbourn?
Matthew: We’ve very lucky to have Alan. I don’t think there’s anybody else, apart from Ayckbourn himself, where this play would be in safer hands because he knows all the characters and all the lines. He never picks the script up but if someone drops a line he knows. He must know every single line in the play. He’s extraordinary.
Sara: It’s wonderful working with Alan because he’s done this play, I think, three or four times before. He loves it and he knows how to do it well so we couldn’t be in better hands.
The play originally premiered in 1969. Are there things about the socio-political context that are very much of its time?
Matthew: The way the men treat the women, especially my relationship with Mary – you simply wouldn’t get away with that sort of thing now, slapping her. It’s emotional and physical abuse really. Also, the wife stays at home while the husband works. That’s the biggest change from now, that status thing.
Sara: You couldn’t really update the play because it’s so rooted in its time. The women stay at home and the men go out to work. That’s very different now. There’s a feminist character in it who reads The Guardian and that whole burn-the-bra thing had only just started really around 1969. We’re not Stepford Wives, but it’s almost as if we are.
What do you see as the key themes of the piece?
Matthew: Class, relationships, sex.
Sara: Plus aspiration and infidelity. But mainly it’s about men’s treatment of women, which I think Alan Ayckbourn comes back to a lot in his plays.
What is it about the play that you feel will resonate with contemporary audiences?
Matthew: It’s the themes I mentioned plus audiences still find it really funny. Some plays age terribly but this isn’t one of them. People will recognise the characters in it.
Sara: The infidelity theme still resonates because that sort of thing still goes on. It’s as much about what you don’t say as what you do in terms of not being found out. What’s different about 1969 is that one of the characters in the play feels if he knows that someone is up to no good then he really needs to tell the spouse, which probably wouldn’t be the same now.
How are your 60s fashions in the show?
Matthew: I’m in a very dull brown suit. My costume could be from any era really whereas the girls have these very 60s flower power dresses and what have you.
Sara: My costume note for when I take my coat off says ‘Mary removes her coat to reveal a fairly awful dress’. It’s got a bit of everything – it’s frilly, it’s pink, it’s blue, like someone who has tried too hard and looks like a dog’s dinner.
You’ll be here in Norwich from 27 November. Have you visited the city before?
Matthew: It will only be my second time in Norwich and last time I stayed out of town so it will be a good week to be back. It’s the end of the tour, it’s getting close to Christmas and everyone will be up for a laugh so it should be fun.
Sara: It will be only my second time too so I’m looking forward to going back and doing some exploring.
How The Other Half Loves is here from 27 November – 2 December. Buy tickets now at Norwich Theatre Royal.