See How They Run, Royal Exchange, Manchester
A frightfully English, seriously funny farce
Thursday 18 December 2008
There's nothing remotely Christmassy about Philip King's wartime farce See How They Run but, as festive fare goes, it's a cracker. It's not just the mistaken identities – though there's plenty of scope for that with five dog-collared clerics (of whom only three are the real thing) – or the ludicrous, fast-paced plot, or the frightfully English setting in a vicarage in Merton-cum-Middlewick, that give it its distinctive flavour.
What King conveyed so well in his writing – a period piece that has stood the test of time remarkably well – are the hilarious comic situations and misunderstandings which arise between the vicar, Lionel Toop, and his wife Penelope (a feisty red-headed ex-thesp), Miss Skillon, the spinster stalwart of the parish, and the sparky Cockney maid, Ida. Added to this potent mix is a desperate German internee on the run, a dashing old acting pal of the vicar's wife who is billeted nearby and the visiting Bishop of Lax. Without giving too much away, the costume changes include the reduction of one of the men of cloth to his underwear. And, being a farce, there's also the obligatory elaborate chase scene, deftly carried off here by this prudence of vicars. We certainly see how they run.
Farce in the round can be farcical for all the wrong reasons. Not so here thanks to the aplomb with which Sarah Frankcom has marshalled her Toops and her troops. Punch-lines are mostly delivered with deadly accuracy while the actors remain just on the right side of caricature. On Paul Wills's evocative 1940s set, with Union Jack bunting and traditional wooden interior, ingenious use is made of the below-stairs cubbyhole and the French windows.
The plot itself may be daft but the ensemble work is seriously good. Arthur Bostrom, best known as Allo! Allo! Officer Crabtree, is the suavely superior Bishop Lax whose bewildered demeanour suggests both an ineffectuality and a dependence on others in the rarefied world of men who live by the Church. Clutching at dignity is hard when you're clad only in muddy pyjamas but, exploding in almost childish fury, Bostrom is magnificent in his plummy delivery of the killer line "Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars".
Hugh Sachs makes a delightfully unassuming Arthur Humphrey, the bona fide visiting preacher who, when thrust into what seems like bedlam, behaves with perfect decorum and even charm. His humouring of his hostess by accepting and savouring a make-believe glass of imaginary brandy is a moment of comic genius. Nick Caldecott's brightly buoyant Toop has the mannerisms that make him the model of a country vicar, benignly appeasing his flock in order to enjoy a quiet existence. Until, that is, he's biffed on the head by the escaped German prisoner which makes him as enraged as a stampeding bull.
Chris Harper's Clive is a match for his old acting colleague Penelope (a memorably fetching Laura Rogers) as they throw themselves into the re-enactment of a passionate scene from Noël Coward's Private Lives. When Penelope persuades Clive to swap his uniform for civilian clothes and disguise himself as a vicar he says warily of this innocent sounding jolly jape, "I've played in too many plays where characters have done that sort of thing and something's always gone wrong." Cue gleeful laughter of thrilled anticipation from the audience.
Exploiting both her physical agility and her prim Scottish accent, Alexandra Mathie hits the mark as Miss Skillon, whether sober or sozzled or knocked out stone cold. With each new twist in this screwball story this the smug pillar of the church community who feels slighted by the vicar's wife very existence, hurls herself ferociously into ever more balletic positions as the cooking sherry she knocks back kicks in. And though, on the opening night, too many lines were mangled by the various accents she tried out and inaudible at the level at which she pitched them, Kate O'Flynn is a game maid, displaying wide-eyed incredulity at the bizarre goings-on in her employer's house. As comic relief for all the family, and for vicars both frocked and unfrocked, See How They Run could scarcely be trumped.
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