New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st August, 2012
Arthur Wing Pinero’s classic comedy from 1887 is given a new lease of life by director Christopher Luscombe in this revival soon to transfer to London’s West End.
The old theatrical conventions of speaking asides to the audience and punctuating scenes with tableaux here seem incredibly refreshing. This is a production that celebrates artifice and contrivance within its plot and in its performance. The actors play it larger-than-life in order to accommodate these conventions but there is no hint of spoof and no knowing winks. As far as they can, they play the material straight, albeit in a heightened and exaggerated manner.
It is a breath of fresh air.
Comedy traditionally has two types of character: those who seek to enjoy life’s pleasures and those who seek to thwart them. And so we have The Very Reverend Augustin Jedd (Nicholas Le Prevost) ruling the roost in his deanery, anti-gambling and anti-extravagance. Unfortunately for this old stick-in-the-mud, his two daughters are spendthrifts and pleasure-seekers. Together with their army beaux, they plot to sneak out after dark to a fancy dress ball. Meanwhile, Jedd’s widowed sister descends on the house. She is far from the withered fragment they are expecting. Instead she is rather mannish and full of fun – Patricia Hodge in a scene-stealing performance. Such fun! She speaks in horse metaphors and racing slang. In fact, Pinero’s script has much to delight in its use of language. The plot may be earthier than anything Wilde ever concocted but the élan and esprit of the dialogue is definitely from the same stable.
A pub fire and a bout of horse doping leads to the incarceration of the hapless Dean – adhering to the tradition that the killjoy and fuddy-duddy must be made to suffer and look ridiculous – but somehow everything comes good before the final curtain. Nicholas Le Prevost is an imperious yet likeable old duffer as the Dean; Patricia Hodge is note perfect as the horsey Georgiana. The entire ensemble is delectable. Daughters Salome (Florence Andrews) and Sheba (Jennifer Rhodes) witter and sing and comport themselves in a hilariously melodramatic fashion. Their boyfriends and co-conspirators are dashing (Peter Sandys-Clarke) and talented (Charles De Bromhead, treating us to some exquisite violin playing). John Arthur as Blore the butler is a delight to behold, pipped at the post for my pick of the running by Rachel Lumberg in an excruciatingly funny portrayal of Hannah, the constable’s wife.
The attention to detail is meticulous. There is no reaction, no bit of business that has been overlooked, and yet the piece ticks along merrily and never feels laboured or overwrought. It is like discovering a recipe for soufflé in an ancient cookbook – one that takes a particular skill to pull off successfully, proving, lest we forget, that sometimes the old ways are still the best.