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Dry Rot – Derby Theatre

Writer: John Chapman

Director: Ron Aldridge

Reviewer: James Garrington


The roots of much of the comedy we see today are firmly embedded in Whitehall Farce, a form of theatre that was once the mainstay of the West End, in the days before it was taken over by the now ubiquitous musical. Typically based largely around misunderstandings, ludicrous situations and split-second comic timing rather than the shouting and obscenity which now seems to run through much comedy these days, this is a gentler style, and one which was – in its day – highly popular.

First performed in 1954, and set in the 1930s John Chapman’s play gives us humour of the ‘Seaside Postcard’ variety – amusing at times, once or twice to the point of laughing out loud, but sadly now rather dated. Time has moved on, and expectations unfortunately with it, and while this play was undoubtedly a huge success in its day, the script as it stands is really no longer as funny to a modern audience as it was to one sixty years ago. It requires something more to make it relevant, and neither director Ron Aldridge nor the cast seem to have quite spotted what it is that is lacking – which for me is a combination of an understanding that there needs to be extra business added to bring out some humour, and that the characters need to be much larger than life.

The basic plot is quite simple: a bookie and his two sidekicks plan to kidnap a racehorse and replace it with an old nag, so they can bet on it to lose and so win £10,000. So far so good – but in classic farce style the plan immediately starts to go wrong, first when they realise that the horse they have will never pass as a thoroughbred racehorse, then by the appearance of the jockey – a Frenchman who doesn’t speak a word of English and who is lodging in the same hotel as the rogues. There follows a series of scenes with characters appearing and disappearing through a secret door, and trousers falling down, as you would expect from this type of play.

Liza Goddard gave a competent performance as Mrs Wagstaff, and Gareth Hale (Flash Harry) and Norman Pace (Fred Phipps) seemed at home with this type of comedy. Evelyn Adams (Susan) also comes across well as a suitably sensible daughter who turns weak-kneed with suitor John Danby (Bob Saul). However, Susan Penhaligon is not very convincing as the dotty incompetent maid that with better direction could have stolen the show, as could Michael Keane (Albert Polignac) as the French jockey.

With actors of this calibre, and all the opportunities available for slapstick, over-the-top acting and physical and visual comedy to enhance the script, this production offers much but sadly fails to deliver.

Runs until 14th July 2012


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