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Dandy Dick – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Writer: Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, adapted by Christopher Luscombe

Director: Christopher Luscombe

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

[rating:4]

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero was a contemporary of both Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, though is rather less well remembered. Although he wrote serious plays, The Second Mrs Tanqueray being an example, he is perhaps best remembered for elevating farce to respectability; it was previously held to be one of the lower entertainments. Dandy Dick is the third of the so-called Court Farces, named after the theatre in London where they were first produced, and, like the others (The Magistrate, The Schoolmistress) allowed the elite of the time the vicarious thrill of seeing their social equals in danger of losing their standing after some minor indiscretion.

The central character of Dandy Dick is The Very Reverend Augustin Judd, a widower, the very model of sobriety and rectitude, who regularly preaches against the evils of gambling and bans his servants from attending the annual St Marvell races. But Judd does have a secret in his past at Oxford. He has two daughters, Salome and Sheba, who are just beginning to rebel and to be courted by army officers Major Tarver and Lieutenant Darbey. The family is somewhat strapped for cash: Judd has recklessly promised the sum of £1000 to the restoration of the church conditional upon seven other altruists giving the same, and his daughters, with little regard for the value of money, have bought fancy dress outfits for a ball with their beaux. None of them can meet their obligations and all seems dark. Enter then Judd’s sister, the widow Georgiana Tidman, who made, in his eyes, an unsuitable marriage to a horse trainer. Having fallen on hard times, she has had to sell her stables and stock. Also part of the mix is Judd’s old friend from Oxford, Sir Tristram Mardon, part owner of the racehorse, Dandy Dick, and in St Marvell to see him run.

Georgiana is far from the restrained individual that Judd tells his daughters to expect; she is loud, brash and speaks almost entirely in racing clichés. Sir Tristram is her male counterpart, having ‘ridden in blinkers’ since his wife died. Dandy Dick seems to be a sure thing and Judd and his daughters begin, independently, to see a way out of their predicaments. In his attempts to ensure the horse is fit, Judd is arrested apparently trying to nobble Dandy Dick. Luckily for him, the constable is new to the parish and fails to recognise his prisoner. Out of chaos and misunderstanding comes order and ultimately reputations are restored and all live happily ever after, with a number of weddings on the cards.

Farce is a slippery genre. It should look frantic and chaotic, but it depends on slick timing by all if it is to work. This talented cast, as well as the technical crew, ensure that this is the case and the pace never slackens. They over act magnificently, stepping to the front of the stage on occasion to share their thoughts on the various situations – the contrast with what polite society might be expecting of them adds to the humour. The characters are somewhat two dimensional and the complex plot far-fetched, relying on absurd coincidences and misunderstandings, but this doesn’t matter in the slightest because it all comes together gloriously, providing the audience with non-stop fun and laughter.

The central trio of Judd (Nicholas Le Prevost), Tidman (Patricia Hodge) and Mardon (Michael Cochrane) carry most of the weight, and do so with assurance never allowing any flat spots to occur. Hodge positively revels in her rôle. Judd and Tidman have been played in the past by such luminaries as Alistair Sim and Patricia Routledge in 1973, and Anthony Quayle and Margaret Courtenay in 1986; big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, Le Prevost and Hodge more than acquit themselves in this production from the Theatre Royal, Brighton. However, it is some of the more minor characters who have the very best lines: the scene in which Judd is locked in the cell in the police house with the constable’s new wife, Hannah (Rachel Lumberg) is particularly funny. Lumberg is perfect as Judd’s ex-cook whose allegiances are torn between her new husband and old master.

Christopher Luscombe’s direction ensures that the pace never flags and adds amusing touches. Designer Janet Bird’s sets, while largely static, are naturalistic and sumptuous and add much to the enjoyment.

Written in 1887, it could be easy to imagine that this play might be dated and to have lost its sparkle. Not for a moment!! This is a super romp that succeeds in poking fun at the establishment and its mores as well as generating laughs from beginning to end.

Runs until: 25 August 2012

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