By: John Maddison Morton
Edited by: Colin Chambers
Directed by: Henry Bell
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Thursday 2nd June 2011
To create a suitable atmosphere for these three Victorian farces, we were treated to Mr Daniel Cheyne acting as Master of Ceremonies, resplendent in a fine purple frock coat, and carrying a small guitar (or large ukulele) with which he accompanied himself during the performance. He chatted with various audience members as we foregathered in the auditorium, and when proceedings were about to get underway, he introduced the cast to us, using the formal designations of the Victorian era. Each actor, as they were introduced, appeared in the far corner, glided across towards us, and exited gracefully through the nearer doorway, all to warm applause. The only exception was Mr Edward Bennett, who remained in the far doorway, and simply closed the doors to effect his exit. Mr Daniel Cheyne then sang a little song which recounted the story of the play we were about to see, to the tune of When I’m Cleaning Windows, if I remember correctly. Similar songs were sung before the other two plays as well. He also filled in as a messenger in the first play, and was fairly reliable at providing ‘noises off’.
Smasher & Crasher
Set: there was a piano between seats which in our row were split in the middle, a partially filled bookcase in the entrance to the left of that. Next came a sofa, and there were two chairs and a couple of side tables around the place, with double doors to my right and in the opposite entrance. Beside each pair of doors was a pair of cupboard doors – this time the cupboard on my right, which was reasonably spacious, led to the preserve store.
Two men, Slasher and Crasher, are to be married to Mr Blowhard’s niece and sister, and the play is almost over before it’s begun. But a letter arrives exposing both men as cowards, and the marriages are off. An ex-military man, Blowhard can’t stand the idea of his family money being passed on to the lily-livered, so he sends both men packing. Crasher conceives the idea of a fake fight between them, to convince Blowhard that they’re made of the right stuff, but things become a little more heated when Crasher lets slip that he was the one who knocked Smasher’s hat off at the races the day before – it was swallowing this insult that got Smasher in trouble with Blowhard in the first place. Their duel becomes more vigorous than planned, and a good deal of Blowhard’s property is damaged, including a cow (off stage) and the sofa (onstage). All is happily resolved, however, and the end of the play is a reprise of the start, this time with applause from us.
A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion
The demolished sofa was removed and a desk and larger round table added, along with a pot plant stand, comfy chair, and a portrait of Mr Snoozle on an easel. The tables have some food on them, and also a goldfish bowl with two rather static goldfish. There’s another, smaller, portrait on the desk, of a grim-looking older lady, looking a bit like Whistler’s Mother.
It’s a simple plot. Mr Snoozle has the house to himself – wife, daughter and niece are all out for the day and the servants have all been dismissed. He’s looking forward to a day of total peace and quiet, but finds he has to stop a young man from drowning himself in the fish pond, and said young man proceeds to make himself at home in a very intrusive way. We’ve already heard about a Mr John Johnson Junior, who wants to marry Snoozle’s daughter; Snoozle has turned him down and not replied to his subsequent letters. We weren’t fooled for a minute – this young man was the daughter’s suitor, and he made himself increasingly impossible to deal with until Snoozle finally threatens him with this Mr John Johnson Junior. He even writes a letter to Mr John Johnson Junior to say that Mr John Johnson Junior can marry his daughter, and have five, no, ten thousand pounds into the bargain. At this point, the young man reveals his identity, takes the cheque, and…… The script peters out, so the actors have to improvise the final appeal to the audience. They did this very well, and again we applauded them mightily.
Grimshaw, Bagshaw & Bradshaw
Out went everything except the desk and comfy chair, while the piano was covered up. We’re now in a bedroom, with a single bed to our left, leading away from the piano and with a semi-circle of rug at its foot, a chest of drawers and plain chair middle of the next side, desk and plain chair middle of the opposite side, with a fire grate towards the corner entrance, and the comfy chair and side table in the middle of the side to our right.
This is Grimshaw’s room. He’s a shop assistant, on his feet all day and just getting ready for bed at 9 pm when there’s a knock at his door. Who can it be? The new arrival is Fanny, a lady whom Grimshaw met recently, and who has lodgings across the street. He offered to share his umbrella with her when it was raining, she took the whole thing, and now he’s smitten. She asks him to let her stay in his room till morning. He’s thrilled, of course, because he naturally thinks she wants him to be there as well. When she tells him to go, he’s more than a little put out, and despite being an agreeable sort of chap, he does at least put his foot down a bit. She soon prises it up again, though, and sends him packing.
Her need for the room is soon explained. There’s a sliding door in the cupboard on our right that allows Emily to slip through from the next room. She’s hiding from her uncle Towzer, who’s some kind of bailiff, because she wants to marry Bradshaw and her uncle won’t allow it – he wants to keep £300 that’s supposed to be hers when she marries. Bradshaw has taken lodgings a few streets away, but Towzer seems to be keeping an eye on Emily’s room, so Fanny has devised this scheme to help her sneak out without her uncle seeing her. (Don’t ask me how Fanny and Emily met. They skated over it pretty fast, and it was clearly one of those unlikely coincidences so necessary for plot development in farces.)
Meanwhile, Bagshaw emerges through the communicating door on the other side; the door had been nailed up, but clearly the Victorians liked their comedy to be destructive, and Bagshaw soon kicked it open. He’s a young man with a taste for cheap cigars and fine clothes, but an aversion to paying his tailor’s bill. For this reason he too is avoiding Towzer, who has been chasing him for several weeks to get said tailor’s bill paid. Add in a returning Grimshaw, determined to find out Fanny’s secret, and copious use of the communicating doors, and there’s a fair bit of fun to be had, with all ending happily yet again, apart from Grimshaw not getting any Fanny, that is.
With all three plays complete, it’s time for a final song from the assembled company, much applause from us, and finish. Except for the post-show discussion, of course. There was a great deal of interesting information about the writer and Victorian theatre in general from the Sam Walters, Henry Bell and Colin Chambers, but the most interesting thing for me was that so many of us had found the humour not only funny, but very modern. Monty Python and the Goons were mentioned, amongst others, and I was reminded of the word-play of the Two Ronnies sketches, especially with the names of the characters. It was good to see how the Victorians liked their humour – Morton was a very popular writer in his day – as it shows a different side to their character, and reminds us that we’re not so different after all.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me