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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Park Theatre  Autumn 2013

A classic Ben Travers farce from the 1920s has been tightened and perked up a bit in this adaptation by Clive Francis, and there's nothing wrong with it that a stronger production couldn't cure. 

French farce is built on 'Quick, under the bed. It's my husband'. English farce, as perfected by Ben Travers and later Ray Cooney, starts with someone telling a simple lie and then having to invent ever more elaborate stratagems to keep it afloat. 

In Thark, a randy old gent makes a date with a shopgirl only to have his wife return home unexpectedly. He asks his Woosterish nephew to beard for him, but then the lad's fiance shows up.

You can see where that line of comedy is going, and the first act pretty well exhausts it, so the play shifts plots in midstream. They've sold their country house to someone who claims it's haunted, so everyone decamps to the old pile for a second act of Old Dark House scares. 

If this production is only intermittently successful, the fault lies with director Eleanor Rhode, who either lacks a natural feel for farce or was unable to impose it on her cast. 

The essence of farce is top speed. In the first half, complications have to pile up on uncle and nephew almost faster than they can keep up with them, because their frantic improvising is the whole joke. In the haunted house scenes the comic scares have to be relentless, not giving us time to see how thin the joke is. 

But Rhode's production too often ambles when it should gallop for us to get much sense of the liars' mounting panic in the first half or everyone's hysteria in the second. Instead of laugh piling on laugh so they increase geometrically, we get the occasional good moment with a lot of dead time in between. 

The cast is very much divided along gender lines. Clive Francis has fun with the dirty old man (though oddly, given that he's the author, has most trouble with his lines), and James Dutton catches a lot of the hapless nephew's comic panic, while John Wark and Andrew Jarvis are droll as, respectively, a harried and a spooky butler. 

But the gorgon wife and a gorgon mother are neither of them gorgonish enough, and the various younger women are interchangeable and leave little impression at all. 

The raw material is there for a couple of hours of non-stop laughs, but what we get are about as many chuckles as a typical evening's TV sitcoms.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Thark - Park Theatre 2013   

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