First Night: The vowel strangler of old London town strikes again

The Chiltern Hundreds, Vaudeville Theatre, London
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The Independent Online
EDWARD FOX'S range as an actor extends all the way from deliriously posh to merely profoundly so. The last time he appeared in the West End it was giving us his impersonation of Harold Macmillan's impersonation of a gruffly gracious Edwardian grandee in Hugh Whitemore's A Letter of Resignation.

Now, in Ray Cooney's reprehensibly enjoyable revival of The Chiltern Hundreds he's virtually unrecognisable as the eccentric huntin', shootin' and fishin' Earl of Lister, whose butler and son wind up standing as, respectively, Conservative and Socialist candidates in a 1945 by-election. The transformation is harrowing.

OK, I jest. Fans of Fox can rest assured that the great man is still strangulating dialogue with all his artful bufferish timing and calculated bemusement, the multiple creases in his face turned down with all the usual puzzled- walrus charm. If he were to do to people what he does to the vowels in a term like "rabbit snare", he'd be serving a life-sentence somewhere. In this William Douglas Home play, he's actually very funny in the part of an aristocrat blundering in a fog of vague ignominy through a post- war world - where his estate is in peril from the incoming socialists, where his lazy oikishly pukka son (Mark Dexter) decides to switch to the winning side, and where it is left to Beecham, his devoted butler (Moray Watson), to fight back for the forces of reaction.

It's very witty timing on the part of the producer, Bill Kenwright, that he has arranged for the first night to coincide with the day the Queen's Speech was delivered in a House of Lords heavily culled of hereditary peers. One half-expected the jokes to be inaudible for the sound of Douglas Home turning in his grave. Certainly The Chiltern Hundreds is one of those early genially anxious postwar comedies in which the idea of social change is played around with in the way that one might fool about with a ridiculous little toy. In so far as there is a "servant problem" in such dramas, it's that the servant is more true blue than his bosses. The behaviour of Beecham here is reminiscent of the butler in Noel Coward's Relative Values, who ends that play by delivering a toast to mankind's greatest invention, the English class system.

I am ashamed to say I enjoyed this production very much while cheerfully despising its underlying ideology. Cooney creates just the right spirit of upbeat sassy goodwill and there are some adroit performances, especially from Polly Adams as the serenely scatty countess. I'd like to see someone write a sequel in which a politician applies for the Chiltern Hundreds in order to set up a Jane Asher-style cake-making business. It could be called The Chiltern Hundreds and Thousands.

Paul Taylor