Arts: When the going gets toff

Edward Fox is in his element in this thoroughly enjoyable revival of The Chiltern Hundreds.
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Edward Fox's range as an actor extends all the way from deliriously posh to merely profoundly so. The last time he appeared in the West End it was giving us his impersonation of Harold Macmillan's impersonation of a gruffly gracious Edwardian grandee in Hugh Whitemore's A Letter of Resignation. Now in Ray Cooney's reprehensibly enjoyable revival of The Chiltern Hundreds, Fox is almost unrecognisable as the eccentric huntin', shootin' and fishin' Earl Lister whose butler and son end up topsy-turvily standing as (respectively) the Conservative and Socialist candidates in a 1945 by-election. The transformation is gobsmacking.

OK. I jest. Fans of Fox can rest assured that the great man is still strangulating his way through dialogue with all his trademark artful bufferish timing and calculated bemusement - the creases in his face turned down with the usual puzzled walrus charm. If he were to do to people what he does here to the vowels in a word like "rabbit-snare" or to the consonants in a simple word like "shoshagesh" (translated: sausages), he'd be serving a life-sentence somewhere.

In this William Douglas Home play, he's actually funny in the part of an aristocrat blundering in a fog of vague benignity through a post-war world where his estate is in peril from the incoming socialists, where his lazy oikishly pukka son (Mark Dexter) switches to the winning side, and where it is left to Beecham, his devoted butler (Moray Watson), to fight for the forces of reaction.

Either he had an urgent gap to fill in his schedules, or it's rather witty timing on behalf of the producer, Bill Kenwright, that he arranged for the first night to coincide with the day the Queen's Speech was delivered in a House of Lords heavily culled of hereditary peers. One half-expected the jokes to be inaudible for the sound of William Douglas Hume turning in his grave. Certainly, The Chiltern Hundreds is one of those early genially anxious post-war comedies in which the idea of social change is played around with in the way that one might fool about with a ridiculous little toy. In so far as there is a "servant problem" in such plays, it's that the servant is more true blue than his bosses. The behaviour of Beecham here, who is elected but resigns and gratefully returns to his "proper level" is reminiscent of his counterpart butler in Noel Coward's Relative Values, who ends the play delivering a toast to mankind's greatest invention, the English class system.

I'm ashamed to say I enjoyed this production thoroughly while cheerfully despising its underlying ideology. Though the actors are mostly left in as much of a world of their own as the distrait Earl himself, Cooney creates the right spirit of upbeat daffy goodwill and there are some adroit performances, especially from Polly Adams as the serenely scatty Countess, reduced to doing her own housework, and from Carli Norris who is all trousers and spiky attitude as the son's millionaire American girlfriend. I'd like to see someone write a sequel in which a politician applied for the Chiltern Hundreds in order to diversify and set up a Jane Asher-style cake-making business. It could perhaps be called The Chiltern Hundreds-and-Thousands.

`The Chiltern Hundreds', Vaudeville Theatre, London. Booking to Feb, 0171-836 9987. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper