When I was ten, my Mum took me to see Brian Rix in “She’s Done it Again” at the Garrick Theatre – one of the last “Whitehall” farces to grace the London stage, and I remember loving it. One day over a pint I’ll tell you about how nice Brian Rix was to me when I met him that day at the stage door; but that’s another story. I do clearly remember buying a souvenir brochure that detailed all the Whitehall farces from “Reluctant Heroes” in 1950 up to the aforesaid “She’s Done it Again” in 1970; and it included photos and production details of the original production of “Dry Rot”, which ran at the Whitehall from 1954 to 1958. So it’s taken me a long time to get round to seeing it!
Unfortunately it was a “Show Alone” night, as Mrs Chrisparkle was unable to get out of a work commitment, so it was just Pinot for One as I took my seat in Row A. Those naughty people at the Milton Keynes Theatre have ruined their stalls, by the way. By far the best seats in the house used to be Row C, a perfect distance from the stage (fifth row back), and with a small rake from Row B in front. They’ve now created Row CC, between rows B and C, which means the once delightfully spacious legroom of Row C has disappeared and you’re now going to be looking directly at the heads of people in Row CC, as they’ve also eliminated the little rake. Row A is now the best front stalls seat, as it still has a rake behind Row BB, and is a good distance from the stage for plays, although a bit close for musicals and dance. Is that too much information for you?
Anyway back to the show. The evening definitely suffered from having quite a thin audience; laughter surrounding you makes comedy funnier, no matter what’s happening on stage. There were plenty of opportunities for amused snorts, giggles and a couple of hefty laughs, but my overwhelming reaction to the production was that it was a small affair dwarfed by too large a theatre. The set was pretty basic, and the off-stage sound effects sounded highly artificial, although the costumes were adequate and I didn’t notice anything wrong with the lighting. There’s a lot of comment in the programme about how farce is an enduring genre of comedy – with which I entirely agree – but to be honest this play struck me as being firmly the kind that would have entertained our grandparents and I felt it was very dated. There’s a lot of laughing at foreigners (well one foreigner) for simply not having the decency to speak English (one of my pet-hates in the theatre); when we’re not laughing at him and his seely Frensh aczent we’re meant to be laughing at the over-the-top yokel vocal and behaviour of the maid (Gemma Bissix stretching credulity to the limit for most of the evening); or the posh/common accents of the bookie and his runner; or the stiff uppers of the retired Colonel and his Memsahib, who run the hotel where all the madcap events take place.
There are some good performances but I also thought a lot of the set piece farce action was a little sloppy in places. The (various) feet going through the dry rot hole on the stairs was telegraphed a mile off each time; the stumbling around of the stupefied French jockey seemed to lack comic timing; and I thought the final tableau where all the various chaotic events were meant to come together just looked a mess. Most of the comic business needed to be snappier and the whole pace of the farce sequences needed to be a bit more frenetic.
That said, I really enjoyed the performances of Neil Stacy as Colonel Wagstaff and Liza Goddard as his wife. They have natural stage authority and made their rather one-dimensional characters completely believable. Ms Goddard’s slightly wide-eyed innocence was perfect for Mrs Wagstaff and Mr Stacy’s Last Days of the Raj Colonel’s voice seemed modelled on the Jungle Book’s Colonel Hathi, which was no bad thing. John Chapman reserved all the best lines in the play for the Colonel, and even though from the viewpoint of 2012 he’s an outdated fuddy-duddy, it’s still the performance of the night.
I also liked Evelyn Adams as their daughter Susan, endearingly posh and polite, struggling to be correct when dealing with the refined advances of Mark Martin’s John Danby, another good performance. Miss Adams pitches her performance on the right side of cute, which is also no bad thing.
For me, where the show didn’t work was with the three low-life bookie rascals. For this show to succeed, I believe you have to look on these characters as loveable rogues. You can then be partly on their side and share in their deceit and villainy. The trouble was, I found them to be various degrees of irritating, and I simply didn’t care what happened to them. This is not because of how they were performed; I think it’s just the way they are written and how they embody a kind of stage villainy that hasn’t seen the light of day since the last episodes of Arthur Daley. I did think that Steven Blakeley as Fred Phipps did excellent pratfalls though, and the scene where he had to learn to ride the horse on the back of the sofa was technically very well done. There’s no doubt that Mr Blakeley has “gormless” off to a T, and that is meant as a compliment.
I did find the play rather depressingly class-stereotyped. I know that it’s a product of its time but it bothered me in a way that it wouldn’t have bothered me in a contemporary Coward or Rattigan play. Retired Colonels are duffers; domestic help are thick; bookies are villains; Frenchmen are irascible; policewomen are bombastic. I think I need more out of a comedy than that. Maybe if Mrs C had been with me I’d have enjoyed myself more, but in all honesty I think it’s a museum piece of a play, and you’d need to be well tanked-up and in a theatre full of like-minded (and tanked) people to really enjoy this one. It’s been touring, and with some cast changes from theatre to theatre, so you can still try your luck with it at Oxford, Brighton or Guildford after it leaves Milton Keynes.
PS. I forgot that actually the best performance of the night came from the lady who, fifteen minutes before curtain up, announced that the doors to the auditorium were open. She used tones of excitement and mystery; deployed light and shade; I detected Sturm und Drang; nuances of Brecht; Grotowski would have been thrilled. Auditioning for RADA or just wanting to make sure the hard-of-understanding pensioners got the message? Couldn’t tell. Had a foyer full of amused, if slightly stunned, people though.