Festival Theatre, Malvern, Thursday 21st June, 2012
The title of John Chapman’s 1950s comedy refers to a patch on the staircase in a country house hotel. The step is to be avoided at all costs – so we wait with mounting anticipation for someone to put their foot in it.
This is just one element of this traditional farce contrived to amuse. That’s the thing with farces: it is all about contrivance. This one, involving the switching of racehorses and the kidnapping of a jockey, is still very amusing. Most of the jokes still work and the comic business, when it works, is a scream. The performance I saw included a pair of trousers that didn’t drop at the crucial moment and a scene that began before the stage manager had quit the stage – I suspect hitches like this happen all the time. The way the actors ad lib and handle these problems adds to our enjoyment.
Timing is essential. A skilful cast is required and this production boasts a wealth of comic talent, with some well-known and lesser-known faces all pulling together as the action winds them up like clockwork. Ron Aldridge’s direction builds the pace nicely but there are a couple of moments that could do with a rethink: the inadvertent knocking out of the hotel owner seemed very awkward to me, and the sounds of Beth the maid dropping stuff sound a little too recorded.
The characters would not look out of place in a P G Wodehouse novel. Neil Stacy as long-suffering proprietor Colonel Wagstaff is a likeable old cove. He is the stiff upper lip put to the test. Liza Goddard is his bright-eyed, absent-minded wife. The two of them barely tolerate the walking disaster area of a maid they inherited from the previous owners (Susan Penhaligon in a consistently hilarious portrayal). Their status quo is disturbed by the arrival of the crooks, Alfred Tubb and Fred Phipps (Derren Nesbitt and Norman Pace) masquerading as respectable bookies. They are in cahoots with Norman Pace’s erstwhile double act partner Gareth Hale as local ne’er-do-well, Flash Harry. These three provide most of the physical comedy. Norman Pace is especially energetic and moronic, eagerly becoming falling-down-drunk.
I liked naive young secretary Bob Saul, handsome but a bit of a twit, trying to woo the proprietors’ daughter (Evelyn Adams, who reminded me of a young Jane Asher). Add a French jockey who doesn’t speak English to the mix (Michael Keane, who manages to wring humour from his characterisation without resorting to caricature or xenophobia) and by the interval, the scene is set for a fast and frantic second half. And then a buxom WPC (Sarah Whitlock in a spirited performance) turns up and the potential for misunderstandings and confusion is maximised.
At times the plot seems as creaky as the stairs. At any second it could fall through but for the most part there is plenty of use left in this old play. It has aged very well but my admiration remains firmly with the cast and the way they keep the balloon in the air, when lines fall flat, or a bit of business goes awry. It must be hard work but I suspect they’re having as much fun as the audience.