Thanks to Feydeau and his followers, we tend to think of farce as the most sex-fuelled of genres, full of randy bourgeois types, bent on bedding one another, who desperately struggle to keep up a front of respectability as the frenzy mounts and their reputations disintegrate with a hurtling, remorseless logic. The improprieties are a good deal less priapic and the pace considerably gentler in the work of Ben Travers, whose 1927 Aldwych farce is now engagingly revived at the Park Theatre by Eleanor Rhode for Snapdragon Productions in Clive Francis's new adaptation.
Attempted hanky-panky may start the ball rolling but the comedy here is essentially about as lust-driven as the plots in P G Wodehouse whose world it recalls in its assembly of silly-asses and dragon dowagers. Sir Hector Benbow, a baronet and Master of Foxhounds, is planning to have supper with a South Molton Street shop girl who has caught his eye. The unexpected return of his redoubtable wife puts paid to that idea and in attempting to help his uncle out of this scrape, Ronny, the likeable chump of a nephew, keeps arousing the wrath of his suspicious fiancee, Kitty, Sir Hector's ward.
The plot is even creakier than the eponymous country house (just sold to the nouveau riche Mrs Frush) to which the entire cast repair in the final act to investigate complaints about ghostly goings-on. It's the dottiness of the cross-talk and the attractive idiocy of the situations rather than any sense of genuinely escalating mayhem (the spookiness doesn't arise from anything that's gone before) that give the play its period charm. Not all of Rhode's company look to be on the right wavelength, however, and, at times, the production feels strained and effortful. But, fingers splayed and torso twisted in the permanent suppression of panic, James Dutton is spot-on and delectably funny as the plucky, vacuous Ronny, forming an endearing double-act with Clive Francis's excellent Sir Hector, a monocled, cowardly old roue whose default operation would seem to be backing surreptitiously away from his spouse (a boomingly commanding Mary Keegan).
The scene in which, during a thunderstorm-ridden night, the two men have to share a bed in the possibly haunted room at Thark is a classic piece of blissful tomfoolery, with Andrew Jarvis hilarious as the creepy butler whose surname, Death, is relatively soothing compared to the sinister repertoire of groans, hisses and disarmingly sudden glares to which he treats the guests. An entertaining show, if lightweight and insubstantial.
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