Writer: Philip King
Director: Eric Potts
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
In this age of equality of opportunity, it’s interesting to note that the plethora of restricted theatre groups – there have been recent examples of Shakespeare performed by all male groups, all female groups and all black groups, and performance groups set up to showcase the talents of people with a range of disabilities. So why not a company formed entirely of short actors? In the conventional world, actors have to recognise that their physical characteristics can limit the rôles they will be offered, but should this be the case? Warwick Davis’ view would be to suggest not – as he explains, he has been in showbusiness for over thirty years but never offered a play: the solution, form the Reduced Height Theatre Company, become the producer and cast himself, along with other similar actors. And so this touring show was born, a company of short actors (average height 4’ 2”) simply acting as run-of-the-mill characters in an established play, in this case, the classic wartime farce, See How They Run. The set, designed by Barney George, has been scaled so that the humour comes from the situations in the play, not from the players’ heights. But does it work, or does it descend into some sort of freakshow? The only fair way to judge is to judge the play on its own merits, as indeed, one should and would automatically of almost any other cast.
See How They Run was written in 1944, a time of great darkness for Great Britain, around the time that the light was lit on D Day ready to be fanned into flames. Theatre audiences wanted escapism and humour, and See How They Run provided that. It is a classic farce, with all the usual elements – fast moving entrances and exits, mistaken identity, a good helping of vicars, the loss of trousers and very little plot indeed. The Reverend Lionel Toop (Warwick Davis) has been married for a year to glamorous ex-actress Penelope (Rachel Denning), much to the distress of Miss Skillon (Francesca Papagno), spinster of the parish. In the course of a single day, they are visited by her uncle, the Bishop of Lax (Jon Key), Reverend Humphrey, a stand-in priest for the following day’s service (Jamie John), Clive, an actor friend of Penelope’s, now in the army, (Phil Holden) and an escaped German Prisoner of War (Raymond Griffiths). Most of these characters are strangers to one another, and those that aren’t already clergy end up dressed in Toop’s clerical attire – hence the repeated cases of mistaken identity. Running through it all is Ida (Francesca Mills), the loyal, helpful, somewhat loud maid with a heart of gold.
At the outset, the play is slow and shows its age as the main protagonists are introduced. However, once the action starts, it hardly stops with characters shut in cupboards or running around the house in convoy. A farce lives and dies by slapstick and timing, and this cast’s timing is spot on. The audience soon enters into the spirit, accepting the play on its own terms, frequently laughing out loud. One quickly stops noticing that the cast are all short actors, though the variations in physical form do make it difficult to believe, for example, several characters are all wearing Toop’s clothes. At the centre are fine performances by Holden and Davis but the undoubted star of the evening is Mills’ Ida. She is a breezy breath of fresh air every time she rushes on stage, protecting her mistress. Mills is a real comedic talent. Many of the other characterisations are rather two dimensional, though this is largely down to the writing as this is a show driven by action, not depth of characterisation. Some of the more minor characters are less convincing – the PoW’s accent is never Germanic enough and that of the Military Policeman sent to apprehend the escapee seems to embark on its own tour of the British Isles.
That said, for those willing to accept Davis’ vision and enter into the spirit, this is indeed an entertaining, if undemanding evening. It will be interesting to see what the company’s next project is.
Photo: Paul Clapp | Runs until 8th March 2014 and on tour