THE DUCK HOUSE
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 5th November, 2013
It’s 2009 and despicable self-serving rotter Robert Houston MP is about to defect from New Labour to the Conservative Party (although why bother?). He and his wife are drinking champagne and getting frisky at the prospect of going further upmarket. Then news of the expenses scandal breaks and Houston is thrown into a panic. Can he hide everything he’s claimed for (such as hanging baskets, bags of manure and yes, a duck house) before Tory bigwig Sir Norman Cavendish arrives to give him the final nod?
Dan Patterson and Colin Swash’s script begins like a Yes, Minister deleted scene, peppered with satirical references. It’s like watching a repeat of Mock The Week as you cast your mind back to remember what was going on four years ago. Ha ha, Nadine Dorries did bite an ostrich’s anus! And yes, Michael Gove still looks like ‘a smug fish’! Fortunately for the play, many of the things mentioned are still current, with the phone-tapping case in court right this minute. It’s humour for the current-affairs crowd, Spitting Image made out of meat. My problem with satire is it is the ‘allowed fool’ – it’s all very well to laugh at the not-so-great and the far-from-good but it’s not going to change anything. It’s not really bringing anyone to account.
Be that as it may, all of that is thankfully just a prelude, a springboard from which launches a hilarious couple of hours of traditional farce of the Whitehall variety. As fraught fraudster Houston, Ben Miller pulls off the remarkable feat of making us detest the character but love his performance. He does a Fawltyesque rant very well, along with knowing asides and some excellent physical comedy. He is ably supported by Nancy Carroll as his snobbish Mrs, and James Musgrave as his student son who has been subletting the flat that is supposed to be Houston’s second home… It all gets wonderfully, farcically complicated. Add to the mix a superb Debbie Chazen as Russian housekeeper Ludmilla, who espouses the rabid rightwing views of the Daily Mail, and the vocally versatile Diana Vickers as an acupuncturist who offers ‘personal services’. Simon Shepherd’s Tory bigwig is both the foil for the humour and the butt of the jokes in a stoic performance that descends into broad humour as his particular peccadilloes are laid bare. Shepherd is wonderful as Sir Norman, the stock character of the authority figure brought low by hypocrisy and sexual perversion.
Director Terry Johnson keeps the energy levels high and the pace unrelenting. His cast are already so at ease with the material they can improvise their way around troublesome ruches in the carpet and props that don’t behave as they might. In an age where television comedy is going all retro and postmodern, it’s refreshing to see that the traditional farce form still works and still has a place on the British stage.
Rather than a call to action about the shameless scoundrels who continue to rip us all off and line their own pockets, The Duck House is a reminder that old-fashioned farce done well is a heck of a good time at the theatre. And when the government is hell-bent on making life as miserable as possible for the majority of us, anything that makes us laugh consistently for a couple of hours is to be welcomed.