Writer: John Chapman
Director: Keith Myers
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
English farce came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s; maybe its light, frothy and undemanding nature was a reaction to the straitened times the country had just endured. A partnership between the writers, John Chapman and Ray Cooney, and actor-manager, Brian (now Baron) Rix began, spawning the Whitehall farces (named for the theatre in which they were first performed) that lasted into the 1970’s when audiences, presumably, began to tire of the unsophisticated plotlines and slapstick. Dry Rot was Chapman’s first such play, opening in 1954 nearly sixty years later, in reviving these period pieces?
At its best, farce is characterised by unlikely situations, improbable plot twists and increasingly fast moving action. Chapman’s play certainly delivers here: Colonel and Mrs Wagstaff have retired and bought a country house hotel near a racecourse. They live there with their daughter, Susan, and the inept maid, Beth. Just as they are despairing of welcoming any guests, they receive a booking from wide boy bookie, Alfred Tubbe, and his runner Fred Phipps. Tubbe intends to make a killing on the big race by switching the French favourite for an old nag, assisted by his friend Flash Harry, and tries to cover his intentions and to appear as an upright citizen by employing an upstanding secretary by post, John Danby. Add to the pot a secret panel linking the house to the old convent where they store their ringer, dry rot in the stairs through which almost every resident falls at some point, and the French jockey (who speaks no English while the other residents speak no French) and the scene is set.
Farce also requires split second timing and consummate physicality to make the whole work. Keith Myers’ direction ensures that the timing cannot be faulted as doors open and close with near misses galore adding to the plethora of misadventures and misunderstandings.
The first half sets the scene for us and is relatively slow-moving. Most of the laughs come from the clumsy and rather simple maid, Beth, played with vigour by Gemma Bissix. Her burgeoning romance with Phipps (Steven Blakeley) is a joy to watch. Having set the comedic ducks up, the second half frantically knocks them all down. Neil Stacy’s gung ho Colonel Wagstaff is played with the right amount of stiff upper lip and upper class bafflement, supported by Liza Goddard’s straight and understated playing of Mrs Wagstaff. But it is the scenes between Tubbe (Andrew Paul), Phipps and Flash Harry (Gareth Hale) that really provide the laughs. Hale’s looks of blank amazement as he is summoned time and again by a not-very-secret knock only to be bundled away are great. The physicality of Blakeley and Bissix is also really well done. Michael Keane’s babbling French jockey, Polignac, and Sarah Whitlock’s Sergeant Fire, the police officer sent to investigate reports of a break in, support the action effectively, although their comedic potential isn’t realised as well as that of the central characters.
However, this genre is showing its age. No amount of well-rehearsed, fast moving slapstick action (facilitated by Duncan Parker’s otherwise static set) can hide the fact it is from a simpler, less demanding age with increasingly quaint dialogue. As a period piece, it’s an entertaining night out, if not great art.
Runs until 27 October