By: Michael Cooney
Directed by: Ian Dickens
Venue: Connaught Theatre
Date: Wednesday 29th August
This was a cut above the usual farces that we’ve seen recently at the Connaught. Partly, this was down to the writing, which gave us some wonderfully funny moments, such as the undertaker’s line at the end of the first half – “He’s dead”! (You had to be there.) The other reason was the casting of Eric Potts to replace the original Norman Bassett. However good the other chap may have been, Eric Potts did a fantastic job, and brought out the maximum humour whenever he was on stage. We remembered we’d seen him in Art at the Connaught earlier this year, and had been really impressed with his performance, so it was even nicer to see him in something different, confirming our opinion of him as an actor.
The plot had more twists than a corkscrew, but the gist is that Eric Swann (David Callister) has been claiming benefit fraudulently since he was made redundant two years ago, through an opportunity that arose when a previous lodger left for Canada. The amounts paid to him have escalated, so that now he’s earning around £150,000 a year, and the complications all start when he tries to kill off his bogus claimants, beginning with Norman. When a DSS inspector arrives (Geoffrey Davies), lugging a large briefcase jammed full of claim details, the need for extra characters stretches everyone to breaking point. Eric’s wife doesn’t know about the scam, and thinks her husband is a cross-dresser, as she’s found some of the gear sent to him by the DSS over the years – maternity dress, wig, stockings (surgical), maternity bras, corsets, etc. I must admit, I didn’t see that coming when we were originally shown the stuff. Eric’s Uncle George (Melvyn Hayes) has been his partner in crime, and nearly ends up being autopsied as a Lassa fever corpse. With several different storylines on the go for several different visitors, including the undertaker, the humour just keeps building, until eventually the characters come clean, and the situation is resolved in a very appropriate way (for a farce).
There was plenty of physical slapstick. Melvyn Hayes was particularly active, being hit several times by the kitchen door, and being bundled hither, thither and yon as a corpse. The sexual innuendo was well to the fore – Norman’s alter ego as his own son, grieving over his father’s death, is called John Thomas, previously known as William Richard (but he found being called Willie Dickie too much). The crossed wires were good fun, especially with the cross-dressing theme and confusion over who was actually dead. Poor Norman thinks his own father is dead for a while, before finding out it’s just him! There were also some good connections between the explanations, such as the claim that there was a health inspector at the house tying up with the lie about Lassa fever. The set was very familiar too, and certainly took a hammering.
But the best thing altogether was Eric Potts’ performance as the innocent lodger who gets snared in the cover-up to avoid being accused of complicity in the benefit fraud. His expressions were brilliant, and he was very good at being slow on the uptake. He has to put up with finding out he’s dead, not being able to talk to his fiancée, having to pretend he’s deaf, and having to make up most of the explanations to give to various people he’s never met before. At the end, he turns up in a frock (intending to impersonate Mrs Swann), and David Callister finally lost it. He’d been twitching a bit during the first half, and just managed to keep it together, but this scene was too much for him, and both he and Eric Potts had a minor giggle before carrying on. Not that anyone in the audience minded – there was a good crowd for a midweek matinee, and we were all enjoying ourselves. Although everyone was good, Eric really stood out, and helped to raise this production well above the average.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me