Arff, Arff...

THEATRE: Plunder; Savoy Theatre, London
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Griff Rhys Jones is, to my mind, the most skilful and likeable player of period farce in the country. But not even his gentle genius for this genre can endear you to Plunder, the 1928 Ben Travers play now revived by Peter James at the Savoy. Comedy is often seen as a field in which the lower orders can prove that they are smarter than their masters, where a Figaro can run rings round the Count. The moral of Plunder, by contrast, would seem to be that if you are upper class, you have every right not just to rob, kill, outwit and falsely incriminate the annoying plebs, but to give them a stiff lecture on honesty as you boot them back to the hovels where they belong. Hilarious eh what, honk, honk? Well...

All chin, goggle eyes and middle parting, Jones plays D'Arcy Tuck, an amiable silly-ass type. On the boat back from an Australian trip, he's got engaged to Sara Crowe's daffily decent Joan (a performance clipped to within an inch of its life). But when this pair descend on the Manor House she thinks she's just inherited, it's to find that her grandfather got hitched on his deathbed to his Bulgarian housekeeper (Rachel Bell, keeping the memory of Peggy Mount and Irene Handl just about alive). Even more surprising is the fact that an old school chum of Tuck's, Freddie, is paying court to his heiress and her dominated wimp of a son. Freddie, a racy bounder-in-blazer type and professional jewel thief, admirably captured by Kevin McNally, has soon recruited Tuck to the cause.

Jones lends genuine charm to his character's relative slowness-on-the- uptake. Getting ready to chloroform the sleeping ex-housekeeper, for example, he accidentally half-chloroforms himself and sways back at an alarming angle like a drunken reed in a gale force wind. Developing a sudden dotty addiction, he gives himself another whiff from the drugged bloomers and plonks the stolen jewellery, for safe keeping, on his head.

You keep getting hints that the play might develop into a full-scale satire on the exclusivist old-school-tie values of the criminal couple - for example, the exquisite moment when, on being allowed to leave the police station, a relieved Tuck instinctively makes to tip the officers. But these are all swept aside as the play turns into a gloating vindication of the toff. Travers' The Bed Before Yesterday, about a middle-aged woman who discovers her libido after a 25-year gap, revived at the Almeida in 1994, left an unpleasant taste in the mouth the more it became clear that the pile-up of humiliations the author had contrived for this heroine was embarrassingly in excess of requirements. Much the same can be said of Plunder and its treatment of the hoi polloi.

I've heard this play mentioned in the same breath as Joe Orton's Loot but, while they may share an amorality, in the one, it is used to buttress the established order, in the other, to explode it. "Do let this be a lesson to you in the future," Freddie sermonises to the outwitted arrivistes, "Be honest... now get out." He cackles in callous delight at the richness of it, coming from him. By the end, Travers' play is about as socially subversive as the Peterloo Massacre.

To 1 Feb. Booking: 0171-836 8888

Paul Taylor