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)

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral