In his book Life in the Farce Lane, the veteran farceur Brian Rix performed the last rites over Rookery Nook, saying that when he presented the play on television in the late Fifties, it was "already somewhat long in the tooth" and that when the Theatre of Comedy produced it in 1986, even the talents of Tom Courtenay, Nichola McAuliffe and Lionel Jeffries "couldn't breathe life into what was now a corpse".
But Dominic Dromgoole's Oxford Stage Company revival of Ben Travers's 1926 Aldwych farce suggests that reports of its demise have been exaggerated. Performed at a furious lick, this stylish production is a refreshing experience.
Time, I suspect, has been up to its old tricks. What may have seemed antiquated now oozes period charm. Consider the comparative innocence of the scenario: when his wife and mother-in-law are prevented from travelling, newly married playboy Gerald Popkiss finds himself alone for the night in the rented holiday home of the title in Chumpton-on-Sea. As he's getting ready to retire, he's disturbed by a beautiful young woman in flight from her tyrannical German stepfather and wearing only dew-soaked silk jim-jams. She pleads for help. What is a chap to do? Why, bung her a pair of his pyjama bottoms, of course, and let her bed down for the night.
In Hysteria, a play likening the mayhem of farce to the disinhibiting effect of psychoanalysis, Terry Johnson put Sigmund Freud into a situation echoing that of Gerald Popkiss in Rookery Nook. The implicit joke relies on the contrast between the disturbing nature of the girl's mission in Hysteria and the fact that there is nothing fundamentally improper about either Gerald's gallant though compromising gesture, or the girl's plight, in Travers's farce.
"Don't worry about the silly old world. There's plenty of other places besides that," Gerald tells Rhoda (played by Jane Murphy). The dottiness of the line indicates that what he's saying is nonsense; the world is infested by censorious, suspicious types like Susan Porrett's dour daily and Fiona Battisby's formidable Gertrude Twine - hence the increasingly desperate attempts at concealment.
Jessica Curtis's red-and-black art deco set looks a bit "fast", but the geometrical clarity of the design with its double staircases underlines the symmetries in plotting and personnel. The cast keep the quips and the clothes flying with flair and stylised period chic.
As Gerald, Benjamin Davies is a cheerful upper-class chump. He forms an expert man-about-town double act with William Mannering's strangulated Clive, his cousin and rival for Rhoda's affections. Richard Henders is a delight as Gertrude's hen-pecked husband, and Rhiannon Oliver adds a drizzle of sauce as Poppy Dickey, the girl who strips off in the cause of probity. A treat.
Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320333) to Saturday, then touring
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