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The Duck House, theatre review: 'A laugh at the MPs' expenses but no claims to greatness'

Vaudeville Theatre, London

Twenty-nine pounds and ninety-nine pence for a glittery loo seat; £380 for 550 sacks of manure; a £2,000 bill for cleaning the moat. You couldn’t make it up. So how do you write a comedy about the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal when the bare facts of the case are beyond parody? In The Duck House, Dan Patterson (producer of Mock the Week) and Colin Swash try to get round the problem by inventing an MP who, in the mad multiplicity of his dodgy claims(from hanging baskets to a massage chair), is like a ludicrous composite of the politicians named and shamed during the debacle.

The current controversy over IPSA’s proposal of an 11 per cent pay rise for MPs gives the piece a sudden new lease of topicality as it arrives in West End. And once again, for comic embarrassment, it would be hard to improve on reality as ministers line up in pious condemnation of an offer that they can’t afford to accept politically nor legally refuse, inflicted on them by the independent body that was set up as a direct result of the scandal. In the play, there’s a strand of easy but enjoyably groan-inducing gags that depend on the benefit of hindsight – about, inter alia, Nick Clegg’s unshakeable integrity and Andrew Mitchell’s preference for his bike (“Keeps him in with the plebs”). I expect that, even as we speak, the authors are busy weaving the awkward IPSA developments into this pattern of ironic clangers. 

It would be a mistake, though, to go to The Duck House expecting the savage indignation of trenchant political satire. The play treats the expenses brouhaha as fodder for a breezy, essentially good-natured farce, directed with crisp expertise by Terry Johnson. It begins in May 2009 and Labour backbencher, Robert Houston (excellent Ben Miller) is plotting to jump ship to the Conservatives. It should be painless process as this champagne socialist has no political convictions to speak of. “At last we can stop pretending!” exclaims his posh wife (Nancy Carroll). The one remaining hurdle is a visit from Tory grandee Sir Norman Cavendish (Simon Shepherd).

But then the expenses scandal breaks and in the frantic cover-up, all of Robert’s skeletons, not to mention his hanging baskets and his spangly loo seat, threaten to tumble out of the cupboards where they have been stuffed. In a blissfully funny sequence, he and his family try to pass off the eponymous object to Sir Norman as a Russian doll’s house, having neglected to ensure that it is empty first.

Debbie Chazen is hilarious as the dour Russian housekeeper whose pronouncements about tighter border control and sterilising single mothers make the Daily Mail sound like a Fabian pamphlet. When Robert cravenly sacks her for not having a work permit, she is bent on revenge.   

The second half kicks off promisingly with the couple’s struggle against the clock to make their London flat look like a home rather than their son’s empty student hovel. But it doesn’t have the loopy buoyancy of Act One and soon descends into tarts-and-toffs farce territory that here feels strained and hackneyedrather than classic.

Throughout, though, Ben Miller is a wonderfully winning presence – equally adept at the exasperated verbal sarcasm and the physical slapstick. He almost makes you forget that a lovable rogue is perhaps not the ideal protagonist for a play that deals with corruption.

To 29 March (0844 482 9675)