Tag Archives: comedy

Working Perfectly

OUT OF ORDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Friday 14th April, 2017

 

Ray Cooney directs this new production of his 1990 farce, complete with bang up-to-date topical references.  These give the play the illusion of happening right now but the structure and genre of the piece root it firmly in the past.  And this is no bad thing – we don’t sneer at those who can still crank out a perfect sonnet; likewise, the well-made farce is an art form that few can pull off.  Cooney is a master.

The set-up is Tory MP (of course) Richard Willey (tonight played by stand-in Geoff Harmer) has rented a suite at the Westminster Hotel in which to entertain the secretary of the Leader of the Opposition.  The couple’s illicit fun is interrupted before it can begin by the discovery of a dead body trapped by a faulty sash window.  Willey enlists his PPS, George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) to assist.  Add to the mix the secretary’s enraged husband, a snooty hotel manager who tends to walk in at the least opportune moments, and an opportunistic waiter and the stage is set for fast-moving action and an increasingly complicated situation.  The laughs keep coming via verbal humour, physical comedy and dramatic irony – we delight in the misunderstandings and their convoluted consequences.

The energised ensemble play the comedy to the hilt.  Susie Amy, mostly in a state of undress, plays panic to perfection.  Arthur Bostrom simmers haughtily as the manager; James Holmes relishes his role as the colluding, mercenary waiter; Jules Brown brings menace and howling vulnerability as the rampaging husband; Elizabeth Elvin amuses as Nurse Foster; Sue Holderness brings a touch of class as Willey’s wife.  The entire cast proves its skills – the pace doesn’t let down for a second – but it is Williamson who is the biggest jewel in this star-studded crown.  His pained expression and increasing confusion and exasperation are expertly portrayed.  The timing is spot on – his desperate puppetry with the corpse (David Warwick being dead good!) is a scream.

The mechanics of the plot and the performance are in perfect working order.  The funniest couple of hours I’ve spent at the theatre for a long time, the play reminds us of the lengths MPs will go to, the lies they will spin, to cover their own tracks.  It made me long for simpler times when all we had to worry about from that lot was their sleazy, personal affairs.  Now, what Willey hoped to do to Ms Worthington is what the government is doing to the whole country – and that isn’t funny.

out of order

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The Ayckbourn Supremacy

RELATIVELY SPEAKING

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 1st November, 2016

 

Alan Ayckbourn’s hit comedy from 1967 still comes across as fresh and funny, mainly because the devices it uses (mistaken identities, misunderstandings) are timeless and as old as theatre itself.  At the time of its premiere, the play was actually rather progressive with its matter-of-fact depiction of a young unmarried couple and their evident sexual relationship.  Ginny and Greg have only been together for a month!  Gasp!  Of course, these days we take these things in our stride; Ayckbourn was clearly ahead of the game when it comes to the way social mores were going.

It soon becomes apparent that Ginny is more worldly-wise than Greg.  Details of previous lovers emerge and she is rather too vague about the flowers and chocolates that continue to arrive.  Greg’s suspicions (among other things) are aroused and he follows her to what he thinks is her parents’ house in deepest Buckinghamshire.  Somehow he arrives before she does and so a web of mistakes and misunderstandings ensues, entangling the characters but giving the audience delicious treat after treat.  Ayckbourn takes dramatic irony and stretches it almost beyond the bounds of plausibility but he is such a master of the form, he knows exactly how to stir and season the pot.

The cast of four is excellent, playing the finely-tuned comedy like a virtuoso quartet.  Antony Eden is Greg, well-meaning, decent but a bit dim Greg, the catalyst for the chaos.  Lindsey Campbell is his perky but secretive girlfriend, with Robert Powell and Ayckbourn veteran Liza Goddard as the older couple mistaken for her parents.  Eden is energetic and likable while Campbell balances attractiveness with shadiness – we begin to suspect she’s not quite good enough for him.  Powell’s comic timing is a joy as grumpy Philip is wound up like a clock spring while Goddard is the perfect foil for him as the sweetly oblivious Sheila who is not as dim as she might appear.

Robin Herford directs with a light touch.  The characters come across as credible people in an incredible situation and the laughs keep coming.  Big, hearty belly laughs – it is as though maestro Ayckbourn is playing us like fiddles and we love him for it.  He keeps us in on the joke throughout and we revel in our superior knowledge as the characters flail and flounder.  It all seems to stem from a terribly English inability to introduce ourselves properly.  We assume, we leap to conclusions, rather than breach convention, rather than risk appearing impolite and say who we are and what we mean.  And we’re all the more fun because of it!

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Confusion reigns: Liza Goddard and Antony Eden

 


A Load of Cobblers

THE SHOEMAKER’S HOLIDAY

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 23rd December, 2014

 

Thomas Dekker’s 1599 comedy makes for an entertaining alternative to traditional festive fare.  A prologue, staged with wit and brio, states that the play is ‘naught but mirth’ and right from the off, you know you’re in for a good time.

However, there is more to the piece than funny caricature and satirical humour.  There are also poignant, touching moments and high drama.  Poor Jane (Hedydd Dylan) seems to be a role comprised almost entirely of tears and heartbreak.  Husband Ralph is sent off to war and is later presumed dead.  He (Daniel Boyd) returns, crippled and disfigured, in time to prevent Jane’s marriage to slimeball Hammon (Jamie Wilkes).

At the heart of the show is a sparkling performance from David Troughton, exuding goodwill and bonhomie as shoemaker and social climber Simon Eyre, accompanied by his grotesque wife Margery – an hilarious turn from Vivien Parry, evoking the best of Julie Walters.

Joel MacCormack is the spirited and likeable cheeky chappie, Firk, bringing energy to his scenes.  Josh O’Connor’s young Lacy is also good fun, disguised as a Dutchman, in a credible comic performance, light years away from the mock-the-foreigner excesses of Allo Allo.  I loved the quiet strength of Michael Hodgson’s Hodge – the decency of the working man wrapped up in some neat touches of physical comedy.

There is a wealth of bawdy humour – even a flatulent character revelling in the name of Cicely Bumtrinket – but even in their vulgarity, we are drawn to the characters’ humanity.  The play celebrates the lower orders rather than holding them up for ridicule and censure

Sandy Foster’s Sybil is a force to be reckoned with – indeed this could be said of the entire company.  The stage is alive with energy.  Young boy William Watson looks perfectly at home with his elders – I doubt anyone gets better performances from child actors than the RSC.

Director Phillip Breen handles the subplots with the dexterity of a master chef keeping  several pots on the boil at once and I think the clarity of the production and its language owes a great deal to designer Max Jones.  Somehow the period costumes (all of them fabulous) convey the world of the play and assist our understanding in a way you don’t get when productions are translated to anachronistic times and other places.

Jack Holden’s King is more than a deus ex machina who shows up to bring resolution.  Holden makes a striking impression in a fully realised characterisation that is both funny and elegant, and he barely has to flex a regal muscle to remind us who is in charge in a chilling display of power.

Enjoy your days off and celebrate while you can, the play says.  There are forces out there that govern the way the lives of ordinary people turn out in order to further their own interests.

Success at 'last' - David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)

Success at ‘last’ – David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)


Big Laughs

THE MIGHTY BEAST
Civic Hall, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 25th April, 2012

This latest show from Oddsocks Productions is a departure from their customary Shakespeare and the Classics-based hilarity but not a departure from hilarity, I am tickled to report.

We are witness to a “live broadcast” of a radio drama from a studio in the 1930s, and so the set is simply a couple of microphones and some tables laden with props. A projection on the back wall reveals the title of the piece and the face of the eponymous gigantic gorilla. The cast of four populate the play with a host of characters, every one with an extremely silly accent, although the overall tone is the clipped teddibly British accents of something like Brief Encounter.

It is all extremely silly indeed. Although this would work as a radio drama, the visual aspects are not overlooked in the slightest. To help distinguish between characters – and to make the thing sillier – the cast don a succession of wigs, hats and beards, a procedure that becomes increasingly frantic as the action progresses. While characters converse at the microphones, other cast members provide sound effects to build the scene. There is of course the obligatory boots on gravel sound – you can’t do a radio play without it – but there are also some inventive ways of portraying swinging through the jungle on vines and walking through bison-infested terrain. Whistles are blown, teacups are stirred and cabbages are slapped. The audience is enlisted to play a tribe of Cockneys, prompted by cue cards to chant, “Who’s that geezer?” and utter aggressive “Ribbits” to suggest a horde of angry frogs.

This is, in case you haven’t guessed, a spin on the story of King Kong: a film-maker and his crew travel to a mysterious island, encounter the mighty beast of the title, and bring it back to London to exploit for the purposes of show business. And it works on more than one level. We get the radio play itself which, like any good piece of narrative theatre, paints pictures in the ear of the beholder. We also get the slapstick of the cast actually trying to act the piece, and it’s all very funny but there is also something more…

This comes out in the second act. Not only does the play give us a laugh-out-loud evening out but it uses the familiar film to make a satirical point about the state of entertainment today. “Krong” (sic) is exploited in a talent show called The Beast Factor. Contestants must sing to appease the gorilla who is barely contained by chains and the fumes of bootleg vodka (provided by the wonderfully named Russian character, Krakwonov). If the savage beast is not soothed, the contestant is horribly killed and the next is brought in. It’s all a fix so that the producer’s favourite will win in the end.

An effective and satirical metaphor for the woeful state of televised music today where hopefuls are eaten up and spat out in monstrous fashion. At one point, a character opines “Why can’t we enjoy music for its own sake? Why does it always have to be a competition?” It is a serious comment and a stand against the prevailing tide.

The format reminded me of Round the Horne re-enactments that did the rounds a while ago. The content also reminded me of the golden age of British radio comedy: the silly voices, the wordplay, the speaking at crossed purposes… The splendid cast (Mark Peachey, Rebecca Jenkins, Kevin Kemp and Andy Barrow) perform with gusto, versatility, quick-wittedness and a sense of enjoyment of what they’re doing that is infectious.

Oddsocks have created a piece that showcases the talents of the performers and the wit and cleverness of director and writer Andy Barrow. That the beast can be suggested by heavy drumbeats, a furry balaclava, furry armbands and growling into a bucket says a great deal about the triumph of invention over expenditure. This piece is rich in ideas, jokes and fun. You don’t need to have two ape knees to rub together.


Desperate Windsor Wives

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 13th December, 2011


Oddsocks’s winter production this year is quite possibly their most bonkers show to date. They set Shakespeare’s sit-com in a television studio in the 1950s, complete with static cameras and equally static cameramen. We are present at a “live broadcast” – the company (usually the Pembroke Players but here the Television Repertory Company) mingles with the audience and perform a warm-up song in appropriate doo-wop style, complete with washboard. Scene transitions are covered with black and white commercials on the large TV screen, extolling the many and varied virtues of Mrs Quickly’s wonder-product, a creation to rival Lily The Pink’s medicinal compound.

We are watching actors playing actors performing a TV play. This remove allows for all sorts of silliness and frame-breaking in the usual Oddsocks style. I won’t spoil any of the surprises because the tour is still ongoing but the postmodern slant doesn’t end with a touch of Acorn Antiques– there is a Bollywood influence at play too, that is bizarre given the context but none the less hilarious. It all serves to bring out the farcical elements of the plot, which has never been one of my favourites. Given this kind of treatment, it works very well indeed.

The cast of only five divvy up the characters, necessitating some quick changes and broad characterisations that add to the fun. Andrew McGillan, a regular player, gives us a teddy-boy Fenton (although he is not involved in the stag scene – a pity given the topical currency of the name) and an almost spherical Falstaff who is more like Elvis in his final years. Avita Jay’s Mrs Ford is melodramatic in a sari, while her Anne Page is a bobbysoxer in Capri pants. Taresh Solanki brings a touch of the Goodness Gracious Me’s to Mister Page, and I was especially tickled (not like that) by Paul O’Neill doubling as a Fawltyesque Mister Ford and a nerdish Master Slender. Cream of the crop, as ever, is the formidable Elli Mackenzie as the ubiquitous Mrs Quickly and a Victoria Wood-like Mrs Page. There is a scene with a Bendix Gyromatic washing machine that is indelibly printed on my memory.

Director and adaptor Andy Barrow is obviously a very clever and very silly man. Oddsocks Productions have come so far that their shows are no longer just a way to have some fun with Shakespeare, they are an event in themselves. The packed-out Arena theatre contained many repeat customers and, I am sure, some new converts to the cause.


Present Arms

SEASON’S GREETINGS
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th November, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn’s seasonal comedy is doing the rounds again in this quality production directed by Robin Herford, boasting an ensemble cast assembled it would appear from the soaps – there’s him from Walford and her off of Doctors… Audience members around me were playing Spot the Star.

Whatever their provenance, it’s a bloody good cast. The play covers the period from Christmas Eve to early morning after Boxing Day. Neville and Belinda Bunker have filled their house with friends and family. Spinster-in-the-making Rachel has invited her writer friend Clive to join them for the festivities. If you’ve ever spent Christmas with someone else’s family, you will be aware of the pitfalls.

Add to the mix a pair of warring uncles: one (the magnificent Dennis Lill) believes society is going down the pan at a rate of knots and goes around armed to the teeth. He gives little children guns as Christmas presents – one lucky lad gets a crossbow, having received his gun the previous year. The other uncle (Christopher Timothy) is an ineffectual doctor with an alcoholic wife (the hilarious Sue Wallace) and a habit of performing excruciatingly inept puppet shows every year, despite the family’s hatred of this ritual. Tensions simmer and boil over. The writer makes a move on the hostess but their coitus under the Christmas tree is interrupted by a Duracell bunny, wrapped up for one of the kids, banging its drum and alerting the household.

As socially awkward novelist Colin, Mathew Bose is at once endearing to the audience and also the recipient of most of our cringes. We feel his awkwardness and embarrassment, when Dennis Lill reveals the six-inch throwing blade he keeps strapped to his lower leg, or when inhibited Rachel tries to express herself whenever she can snatch a moment alone with him.

The play is a comedy of manners but there is also plenty of physical comedy and wonderful moments to enjoy. The rehearsal of the puppet show is always the highlight for me, every time I see a production. Uncle Bernard’s Three Little Pigs is as funny a play-within-a-play as that of the Mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Glynis Barber as neglected wife Belinda shows the fragility of the character. She has one of the darkest speeches in the play in which she reveals her need to try to keep up-to-date with each new thing, and her complete inability to do so. “You have to take an interest, don’t you?” she says. “If I didn’t, well, I’d just die.” This is as bleak a moment as any in Chekov.

The play ends with early morning farce, in which Colin is carried off to hospital having been shot by the mad uncle who mistook him for a looter of Christmas presents. The typical family Christmas might not involve firearms but, as Ayckbourn shows us, can still be quite a battlefield.


Oscar Winning

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Rose Theatre, Kingston on Thames, Tuesday 25th October, 2011

 

You wait years for a production of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece and then two come along in the same season.  This one, at Kingston’s marvellous Rose, outshines the earlier one in practically every aspect.

 

The stage is dominated by a false proscenium arch, gilded and enormous.  To the characters it is the elephant in the room but to the audience it is a constant and glaring reminder of the theatricality of the piece.  All is contrivance and artifice, and while other versions take the script at face value and play things naturalistically, allowing Wilde’s wonderful wit to do the donkey work, Stephen Unwin directs this cast to play for laughs.  There is a physicality to the characters I have not seen before.

 

In particular, Daniel Brocklebank displays a talent for comic playing as protagonist Jack.  He gives the character a short fuse – an explosion into frustrated rage is never far away, invariably provoked by Bruce Mackinnon’s carefree Algernon.  This Jack not only lives by his wits, he is frequently at his wits’ end.  It is a spirited and energised performance, both nuanced and larger-than-life.

 

There is a delicious double-take from Jane Asher as the imperious hypocrite, Lady Bracknell but not where you think it might be and, while just a few of the lines are thrown away, the entire cast forms a delightful ensemble.  The epigrams trip off their tongues but there is also some acutely observed physical business that enhances the action.  Richard Cordery’s Chasuble is a gentle giant of a man, shaking the dew from his shoes as he strolls around the grounds with Ishia Bennison’s scatterbrained Miss Prism.   Jack’s searching of the army records that will deliver the resolution to the ridiculous plot is perfectly silly.  It is not just the fact that the answer lies in these old books but the way he consults them.  It is attention to details like this that raises this production above others.

 

I would like to have seen more made of Merriman the butler when Gwendolen and Cecily are engaging in the most elegant bitch-fight in all literature, but all in all, I left the theatre invigorated by the new life injected into this old classic.