Tag Archives: farce

Ups and Downs

TAKING STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th October, 2017

 

Alan Ayckbourn expertly directs this revival of his 1979 farce, playing in a double-bill with his latest work, A Brief History of Women.  Set in rambling manor house The Pines, Taking Steps has most of the ingredients of classic farce but the traditional element of doors is swapped for two flights of stairs.  The action takes place on three floors of the hours, with characters running, sneaking and hurrying up and down stairs in bids to avoid each other or seek each other out.  And yet, all three floors are set in the same square of stage, with furniture from three rooms sharing the same space.  The stairs are flat, running alongside two sides of the square.  This allows us to see characters in different rooms at the same time, if you see what I mean.  It works like a charm and the added silliness of actors galumphing along flat sets of stairs augments the overall ridiculousness of the plot – which I won’t attempt to summarise here.

Louise Shuttleworth is great value as Elizabeth, a thwarted (and self-deluded) dancer, attempting to leave her husband.  Laurence Pears is also great as her brother Mark, who has problems of his own, not least of which is people falling asleep when he is talking to them.  The heightened accents, a tad more RP than we use today, add to the period feel – the complications would not work in today’s world of smartphones and technology.  Laura Matthews’s Kitty is quickly established as the timid, overwrought former fiancée of Mark, while Anthony Eden’s hilariously inarticulate solicitor Watson is an absolute delight.  Leigh Symonds’s builder Leslie Bainbridge is all-too recognisable from the ‘real world’ but it is Russell Dixon’s overbearing Roland, Elizabeth’s husband, who dominates the piece and its events.  Dixon is marvellous and his Roland has many colours, all of them increasingly blurring as he knocks back the scotch.

The writing is sublime – Ayckbourn’s dialogue can’t be bettered in my view – and there is plenty of physical business as the action winds itself in knots.

Still funny after all these years and performed by a top-notch ensemble, the play reveals human inadequacies in a vastly enjoyable way, and it’s an undiluted pleasure to escape into this highly manipulated world and get away from the unfolding, deteriorating farce that is our current government and the Brexit ‘negotiations’.  Anything that brings hearty laughter in these troubled times is to be welcomed and embraced like an old and much-loved friend.

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Laurence Pears and Louise Shuttleworth argue in the bedroom while Antony Eden waits downstairs. (Photo: Tony Bartholomew)

 

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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.

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You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here…

WHAT THE BUTLER SAW

Curve, Leicester, Monday 13th March, 2017

 

Not more dreary confessions from Paul Burrell but Joe Orton’s final play, staged in his home town fifty years after he was murdered by his mentally ill boyfriend.

The play – a farce – has mental illness at its core.  Set in the consulting room of Dr Prentice (Rufus Hound), the action begins with sexual harassment during a job interview and goes rapidly (and deliciously) downhill from there.  The staples of farce are all present, from the set with its abundance of exits, to misunderstandings, disguise, physical comedy, and characters motivated by their foibles, all wrapped up in an absurd situation.  What lifts Orton’s writing far above the usual Whitehall fare (all the rage at the time of the first production) is the quality of the writing.  Deliberately provocative, the dialogue sparkles with Wildean epigrams.  The seemingly frothy exchanges belie the dark underbelly of the world of the play – and, by extension, our society.  And it retains the power to prick our sensibilities today, in this overly sensitive age when being offended is a time-consuming occupation.

Rufus Hound is in manic form as the lecherous psychiatrist – it’s almost as though he’s auditioning for a 1970s sitcom.  Catherine Russell’s Mrs Prentice matches him for moments of hysteria but her own lechery is more coolly portrayed.  Jasper Britton dominates as the pompous and tyrannical Dr Rance, imposing his psychoanalysis on what he perceives to be the case – he’d fit in perfectly in this post-truth world where those in authority have no regard for facts.

Ravi Aujla’s unfortunate police sergeant adds to the chaos while our sympathy is aroused by Dakota Blue Richards’s hapless Geraldine, an innocent embroiled in a nightmare.  The ever-excellent Jack Holden makes a fetching page boy as Nicholas Beckett – I can’t decide if he’s more appealing stripped to his underpants or dolled up in wig and leopard-print frock….

Director Nikolai Foster keeps the action frenetic and the dialogue quick fire.  The pace doesn’t let up for an instant – that would be death to a farce.  Michael Taylor’s curved, clinical set, brightly lit by Ben Cracknell, provides a stark backdrop for these colourful characters, and the result is a relentlessly funny, morally questionable evening’s entertainment.  That some of our laughter is uneasy shows how well Orton had his finger on the pulse, and the sheer, overt contrivance of the denouement blatantly mocks the excesses of the form.

A dark masterpiece, flawlessly presented – and I can’t help wondering what else Orton might have given us had he lived even a little bit longer.

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Jack Holden and Rufus Hound face a hairy situation (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)


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

 


Costa del LOLs

SWAP!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 28th June, 2016

 

Farce is an art from a bygone age and requires the skills of a sonneteer or a watchmaker to make it work as it should.  Actor Ian Ogilvy turns playwright and director for this production of his new piece and, indeed, all the ingredients are there.  People coming together in the same place for different reasons, misunderstandings, reversals, absurd events – Andy Newell’s set has the requisite number of exits and entrances to facilitate the action…

We are in a villa in Marbella.  Middle-class couple Brian and Susan Flowers are taking a break from their funeral direction business and have ‘swapped’ their Wimbledon home for something more exotic.  Brother-in-law Jeremy is also along for the ride.  Not long after their arrival they find themselves plunged into a nightmare of corpses and confusion.   The owner, now in their house in South London, is a Costa del Sol mobster and his rivals from Torremolinos are out to get him…

It’s not long before a dead body is falling out of a cupboard and we’re off!  A well-worn device of a telephone call for exposition dominates the opening scene, cranking the comic tension right up.  The cast maintain a high level of hysterical sarcasm throughout – Ogilvy directs with an assured hand – there is just the odd moment when the action or pacing needs sharpening.

David Callister is superbly annoying as the nasally verbose undertaker Brian, while Freya Copeland is suitably fed up and scathing as long-suffering wife Susan.  Patric Kearns has a hint of Matt Berry in his Jeremy, and Louisa Lytton’s Coral, the gangster’s moll, is delightfully dim.  David Janson makes a welcome appearance as mobster Paul and there are some enjoyable cameo performances from Michael Kirk, Davies Palmer and Alan Mehdizadeh as a range of characters. The latter’s Harry the Hammer is hilarious and menacing at the same time.  You don’t want villains to be too villainous in farce – just enough to motivate the others to taking action.

On the whole, it all ticks along very well.  Apart from a couple of references to the internet, it could have been written forty years ago – and that’s not a criticism.  Ogilvy has risen to the challenge and has pulled it off.  It’s a pleasure to see things being set up, pieces falling into place, and paying off.  The final absurdity is a masterstroke, both fitting and surprising, and among the machinations of the plot there are some genuinely funny, original jokes.

Performed with comic intensity by a committed company, Swap! is a satisfyingly silly, cleverly constructed and funny farce, with a body count higher than your average murder mystery!  It’s just the tonic in this period of economic and political uncertainty.

A right good, old-school laugh.

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Larger Than Life

SEE HOW THEY RUN

Derby Theatre, Monday 7th April, 2014 

 

“There are no small parts, only small actors.”  That cliché refers to mentality rather than stature.  Massive star Warwick Davies knows there are lots of small, as in short, actors who are not getting the chance to display their talents outside of Snow White pantomimes and Gringott’s bank.  Davies set up the Reduced Height theatre company to provide just that chance and their first production, Philip King’s 1944 farce gets them off to a running start.

The play is old-fashioned but wearing well. Directed by the legendary Eric Potts, the emphasis is on getting as many laughs as possible from the material.

Davies is Reverend Lionel Tapp and shows a nice line in comic reactions, spit takes and double takes, and is ably supported by his troupe of character actors. Rachel Denning swans around as the vicar’s glamorous wife;  Francesca Papagno is an absolute hoot as local frump and busybody Miss Skillon who gets pissed as a fart and stowed in a cupboard.  Phil Holden is great fun as actor-turned-soldier Clive, and Jon Key is suitably indignant as scandalised as fuddy-duddy bishop Uncle Dudley.

It’s all played in a heightened (so to speak) style with larger-than-life characterisations.  There’s lots and lots of running around, some of it gratuitous, in this tale of disguise and mistaken identity.  Raymond Griffiths adds a touch of menace as an escaped POW with a cod German accent, Jamie John brings camp and confusion as a visiting vicar, but the stand-out of the night is Francesca Mills as Ida, the cheeky maid, all gorblimey and eye-rolling, complete with a Barbara Windsor cackle.

It’s fast paced – it has to be or it would die on its arse – and gloriously silly fun, good-natured and refreshingly uncynical in its contrivances. Eric Potts works his players hard, piling on the comic business, making use of their physicality without mockery.  There is something extra funny in seeing their little legs run, and it’s funny in another sense how their lack of height adds a dimension to the comedy.

I hope they’ll tackle a straight drama next.  This production takes giant strides away from the notion of short actors as novelty acts.

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A Farce To Reckon With

DRY ROT
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.