Rookery Nook, Menier Chocolate Factory, London
A farce to be reckoned with
Wednesday 06 May 2009
The funny thing about farce is that it's not often funny. It's as exhausting for the audience as it is for the actors, and you spend so much time worrying about how the characters will survive their own stupidity that you sometimes forget to enjoy the ride on the carousel.
It's a tribute to Terry Johnson's revival of Ben Travers's vintage 1926 Aldwych farce, therefore, that its antiquity comes across as charm and its verbal silliness a fair guide to the characters' predicament. Two silly chump cousins, one of them newly married, rescue a girl in her lingerie from a German stepfather and fend off the forces of censorious respectability.
The play goes like clockwork, tailored to the particular talents of almost forgotten actors like Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn (who played the cousins originally) and Robertson Hare, who always played the clerkish, bespectacled, hen-pecked husbands, and sometimes the worm who turned.
At the Menier, Neil Stuke is the new groom Gerald Popkiss, physically inept and sweating with anxiety, while Edward Baker-Duly – ideally named for Travers – is cousin Clive, or "Clave", a swaggerer who takes an instant shine to the stranded Rhoda, played with flirtatious sensuality by Kellie Shirley.
They do very well, but relaxation is lacking; the actors have to make the audience feel at home, even if they aren't. Mark Hadfield as the put-upon Harold Twine manages this best, eyes glazing over in a low moan of despair (a little like Robertson Hare's trademark exclamation, "Oh, calamity!") and distractedly chewing the rim of his boater as if it were a baby's rusk.
Twine's sterner half, Gertrude, is played with no-nonsense, basilisk resolution by Sarah Woodward, legs akimbo in disapproval, while the Gorgonic housekeeper Mrs Leverett – played in the last West End revival by Peggy Mount – is done with almost bland indifference by Lynda Baron, failing to make much of her daily chores becoming nightly ones.
Other implicated locals of Chumpton-on-Sea, Somerset, are a golfing admiral (Alan Thompson) whose arrival prompts Stuke to stuff an iron club down his trouser leg with catastrophic consequences for his social mobility; and a squeaky flag-seller, Poppy Dickey (Victoria Yeates), who comes to raise money, and stays to remove her clothes, in a good cause.
Stomping around with Teutonic bluster is Nick Brimble's wicked uncle, who has drummed Rhoda out of his house but curiously wants to exert his protective authority by turning up to find her. He is aided by an unseen barking mastiff who threatens the cousins' manhood every time they open the back door, which at least makes a change from treading on a hissing cat whenever they enter the kitchen.
The play has been revived as a 1972 musical, Popkiss, starring Daniel Massey and Patricia Hodge, which folded after two months, but had some jolly songs. But the wacky world of Ben Travers, and its goofy high spirits, has always eluded productions – such as those in the West End in 1986 and at Greenwich five years later – that didn't find suitable substitutes for the original eccentrics.
Brian Rix, no mean farceur himself, even suggested that the plays were unsalvageable, a view disputed in the National's Plunder in 1976 and again by a hilarious Griff Rhys Jones in Thark in 1989. Stuke and Baker-Duly haven't quite reached that plateau of pottiness despite fully understanding the physical expressiveness of the language.
Johnson's production, laid out handsomely in Tim Shortall's country house design, doesn't have full escapist lift-off, even though the dialogue rattles with manic urgency and there's time for Baker-Duly to sing a verse or two of Ivor Novello's "My Dearest Dear". Lacking gleam and sheen, it's still an enjoyable eye-opener on British humour between the wars.
To 20 June (020 7907 7060; www.menierchocolatefactory.com )
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