The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring-Summer 2009
The Menier's revival of Ben Travers' 1926 farce gets a few things exactly right, but too many others wrong or not-right-enough.
Half (or maybe a third) of a loaf may be enough for you, but the overall effect is of comic opportunities missed.
Twentieth-century British farce, from Travers through Brian Rix to Ray Cooney, is built on the premise of one small misstep or lie leading to others as stratagems snowball out of control while the hero tries to keep the wrong people from discovering the wrong things.
In this case a scantily dressed young woman appears in the home of a newlywed man in his wife's absence.
She's escaping from an evil stepfather, and he gallantly offers her a night's refuge, only then to realise what this will look like and to begin the ever-more-complex efforts to keep her presence secret.
To start with what works, the characters in a farce like this are all puppets and cartoons, and some of the performers get their comic quality spot-on.
Though he takes a while to warm up, Edward Baker-Duly eventually finds the hero's likeably lecherous co-conspirator, with a blend of soigné cool and lascivious leering that would do Leslie Phillips proud.
Mark Hadfield is a delight as a henpecked husband panicked at also being roped into the plots, and has one perfectly-timed delayed double-take that is almost worth the price of admission in itself.
Lynda Baron has the no-hanky-panky-on-my-watch housekeeper down pat from line one, and Kellie Shirley captures the delightful mix of innocence and sexiness as the damsel in distress.
On the other hand, though, Sarah Woodward as the henpecking wife and Nick Brimble as the German stepfather simply aren't the over-the-top grotesques the genre demands, making their scenes anaemic imitations of the broad comedy they should be.
And Neil Stuke plays the hero as generic nice guy, finding no character for him at all.
This unevenness must be laid at the feet of director Terry Johnson, who must also take the blame for the evening's greatest failings.
The essence of this sort of farce is snowballing near-chaos and panic, and that absolutely requires speed and precision in the staging.
The timing of getting the girl offstage as someone is coming on has to be exact, and the mounting pressure on the conspirators requires that things come at them thick and fast.
But too many sequences here amble when they want to race, or occur haphazardly when they want military precision.
There are, inevitably, several moments when a knock at the door means that Person A must get away, and Prop B must be hidden somewhere, and Persons C and D must find a way to look innocent and nonchalant, all before Person E enters.
And the whole fun of such moments comes when they are choreographed to the split second, much of our delight coming from the pure technical skill of the performers.
But here the timing is repeatedly just a little bit off, the actors chaotically uncoordinated rather than precisely choreographed, the person or thing hidden a second too soon or too late, spoiling the effect.
A sequence of keeping a bag of clothing away from the wrong person should have the crispness of a military drill, but it plays like the fumblings of an early rehearsal.
These things matter. Unlike character-driven comedy, much of the fun of farce comes from purely technical things like perfect timing and tight choreography.
Sloppiness not only deprives the audience of this pleasure, but it gives them time to think about plot holes and character inconsistencies - and that's death.
A director of farce has to know this. He has to drill his actors to a metronome if necessary, to get every scene as tightly paced as possible. Terry Johnson simply hasn't done that, and the evening suffers.
If you want to get a real sense of Ben Travers' brilliance as a farceur, you'll need a second consciousness watching what-should-have-been, along with the very uneven approximation of it that is actually there.
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