Four Farces – May 2013

Experience: 6/10

By – see below

Directed by Jonathan Kemp

Company: European Arts Company

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th May 2013

This was a good collection of one-act farces by Victorian writers. We’d seen one of them before – A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion – and being a Gilbert and Sullivan fan I was very keen to see Box And Cox, the basis for Sullivan and FC Burnand’s light opera Cox And Box. The cast was limited to three actors – Richard Latham, John O’Connor and Asta Parry – so the farces had been selected with that limitation in mind, and it was good fun to see the actors take a variety of roles throughout the evening.

The set had to be equally versatile. Backed by a number of folding screens, which had different wallpaper on each side, a relatively small amount of furniture provided a range of different rooms. A chaise, chair, armchair, table, trolley, stepped display stand with hat stand attachment and a footstool were moved briskly round the stage between farces, and there were supporting performances from assorted trunks and suitcases. Pictures, a mirror, some hanging lights and other paraphernalia including a goldfish bowl were added as needed, and don’t get me started on the costumes. Cross-dressing wasn’t so much optional as mandatory, and the more ridiculous the better; made Charley’s Aunt seem quite refined.

Box And Cox (John Maddison Morton) is a well-known story, with the phrase itself entering the language. We very much enjoyed watching the dawning realisation that the two men were both betrothed to the same woman, and the repetitive joke of the letter deliveries was also good fun. The two men looked very different, which made the final revelation of brotherhood even funnier. At the end of the play, the actors stepped forward to deliver an epilogue and to ask for applause, which we happily gave, and then the process of changing the set began. It was done surprisingly quickly, and then a sign at the side of the stage which displayed the play’s title was removed by Asta and turned round to show us the title of the next farce: Wanted, A Young Lady (by William E Suter).

This play was a neat little farce involving a drunken servant, a rakish ne’er-do-well grandson and a young female companion with a hidden agenda. The servant, Simon, unwillingly impersonated the grandfather, and was ordered to answer “My wife will be back shortly” in response to every question. The grandson Frank not only impersonated his own brother Harry, he also donned a black skirt, cape and veil to pretend to be his own grandmother. Fortunately the young woman, Adelaide, was capable of similar tricks and she pretended to be the real grandmother, much more convincingly it must be said. With the real grandparents walking (very slowly) up the path, the situation was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and they finished with another epilogue, only this one didn’t go quite so smoothly. Frank put in his plea, backed by Adelaide, but when they called on Simon he was stuck for something to say until he remembered his instruction – “My wife will be back shortly” finished the play and got a good laugh.

During the interval the set was rearranged for A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, the John Maddison Morton farce we’d seen previously at the Orange Tree (Three Farces, June 2011). The performance this time was pretty good, and there was one change I noticed; this time the actors referred to the prompter regarding the missing tag line. When there was none forthcoming, the need to finish things off with an appeal to the audience made more sense now that they’d established the pattern after the previous two farces.

It took a little while to rearrange the set for the final farce, Duel In The Dark. Having changed everything round, John O’Connor came on stage to begin the play when one of the screens fell over and took half the set with it. With a suspiciously practised air, the actors put everything back, discarding one or two items which were clearly beyond rescuing. It was only a short distraction, and seemed to fit in well with the rather rough and ready style of the farces themselves. We certainly enjoyed it, and the actors made one or two references which got extra laughs.

Duel In The Dark by Joseph Stirling Coyne was an entertaining piece in which a wife taught her husband a lesson by pretending to be a French Countess. Appalled that he chose to run away with this other woman, she then created a Gothic thriller scenario whereby the French Countess was actually the leader of a criminal organisation on the run from the police. Meanwhile she also turned up as herself along with her maid Betsy, beautifully played by Richard Latham, and just to put the icing on the cake, she also played her own (male) cousin who challenged her husband to a duel. He agreed, but only if it was carried out in the dark – bizarre doesn’t quite cover it. The pistols were only loaded with powder, no one was killed (although there was an extended death scene) and husband and wife were finally reunited in matrimonial bliss. It was a spirited finish, and we showed our appreciation in the usual way.

The performances were all fine, and again we found the humour to be remarkably modern. Those Victorians liked a good laugh, and the Pythonesque style of comedy was evident in more than just A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion. Given the limitations of a touring production, it may be that even more could be made of these plays, but we were very happy to have caught this particular performance tonight.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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