Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1887 comedy has been given a wide berth by directors - it was last staged in the West End in 1973 - and its author largely forgotten. Pinero was celebrated at his peak for his rehabilitation of the farce, and for a while outshone Wilde and Shaw, though his star waned and he died in relative obscurity.
Though Christopher Luscombe’s revival canters along nicely and, thanks to Janet Bird’s drawing-room set, is pretty as a picture, the play’s problems are clear. Dandy Dick never quite achieves the pace of a full-blooded farce and provides less of a ferocious attack on establishment hypocrisy than a very gentle poke.
It centres on the financial challenges faced by the Very Reverend Augustin Jedd (Nicholas Le Prevost), a pillar of the community known for preaching against the perils of gambling. Encouraged by his brash, thrill-seeking sister Georgiana (Patricia Hodge), known in horsey circles as “the daisy of the turf”, he risks his reputation and his savings on the eponymous nag to help pay for a new church steeple.
Meanwhile, the rev’s daffy daughters (Florence Andrews and Jennifer Rhodes), likely precursors to Wilde’s Cecily and Gwendolyn, have their own problems raising funds for costumes for a fancy-dress ball for which they must smuggle themselves out of the house after dark with the help of their suitors.
Sporting a dog collar and a put-upon expression, Le Provost takes a while to warm up but, as temptation visits and catastrophe strikes, he finds his comic stride. There is no such limbering up required by Hodge whose jovial, no-nonsense presence instantly lifts the spirits and sharpens the script.
Further problems arise for the clergyman when he asks his butler Blore (John Arthur) to administer a special elixir to help the horse on its way, except that Blore has his eye on a different ride. The result is a night in prison for Augustin, a daring rescue by Georgiana and her tweed-clad beau Tristram (Michael Cochrane) and the weak closing realisation that “there’s no harm in laughter”.
Dandy Dick, which Pinero wrote in Brighton, apparently marks a new dawn for this pretty coastal theatre, now re-launched as a springboard for new productions. Certainly, it’s a decent enough start for this new enterprise, though you imagine there’s better to come. Dandy Dick may not be a front-runner among farces, but it’s certainly worth an each-way bet.