The Duck House – November 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Dan Patterson and Colin Swash

Directed by Terry Johnson

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud

Date: Friday 1st November 2013

This was cracking fun. We had a good view of the performance from our seats to the right of the auditorium, despite being warned that our sightline might be obscured in some way during one scene, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Although most of the topical references related to the expenses scandal, they didn’t seem out of date at all (sadly) and some of the other quips were very funny – references to getting a lift home from Chris Huhne, for example. I won’t give away too much, but the funniest gag for me came early on, when the Labour politician Robert Houston (Ben Miller) was filing away his receipts for a future expense claim. One box was getting a bit full, so he used another location which was a bit unexpected, and very funny.

The set for the first half was the sitting room of the Houston’s palatial country residence – think Country Life and you won’t go far wrong. The carpet fitters had obviously been cowboys mind you; the carpet under the left-hand door rucked up at one point and made it hard to open, but the stage hands soon had it sorted. In addition to the usual furniture and décor, there was a large black chair on the left hand side of the stage which turned out to be a massage chair, and a large duck house was brought on for the latter part of the half.

The second half was set in the London apartment which the Houstons were claiming as their main residence. The décor here was more Gothic in tone, with lots of black, skulls and other gruesome references. A room above the central space was screened off at the start, but a change of lighting allowed us to see through the ‘wall’ and spy on the activities of the occupants. There were doors off to left and right, with the main door to the hall being back left. A wardrobe was brought on at one point and made itself useful in a number of ways, but otherwise the place was pretty bare.

The performance got off to a good start with the sound of the Westminster chimes, after which Ben Miller did a short introduction, in character, to set the scene. He was opening a bottle of champagne at the same time, and that led into the opening scene with his wife where he told her of his intention to join the Conservative party. She was delighted – no more having to pretend to be an earthy working class type; now she could shop at Waitrose without a qualm.

The only holdup in announcing his change of allegiance was the need for a brief visit by Tory grandee Sir Norman Cavendish to check that Robert would be a suitable addition to the Conservative camp. With the expenses scandal suddenly breaking on the news, Robert realised he would have to clean up his act if he was to pass muster, and this led to a frenzy of house-clearing, or at least a frenzy of hiding anything that might look suspicious to Sir Norman. Items were being crammed in cupboards, pictures were disappearing off walls, and with hiding places at a premium the eponymous duck house ended up in the living room. Complete with duck.

With the good fortune that only happens in farces of this kind, they were just about able to get away with having this odd object in their living room, but Sir Norman did make another request: to visit their London flat to check that everything was in order there. Having let their son Seb live there for some time, the Houstons knew they would have to sort it out a bit, but they didn’t realise just how much they would have to do. Their attempts to cover everything up were scuppered by the unfortunate activities of another of the flat’s residents, so how would Sir Norman react?

It all ended remarkably well for the Houstons, and while we didn’t see it coming the final revelation was very fitting for the current political ethos. There was a final direct-to-audience chat from Robert and then we applauded heartily, along with everyone else. It was a full house from the looks of it, and richly deserved.

The performances were all good, and will no doubt get even better. Ben Miller was on top form, and Nancy Carroll, who plays men so well, was superb as his wife; we loved the way she fainted when her husband informed her that they would actually be paying for some furniture themselves. The rest of the cast provided good support, and we very much liked Debbie Chazen’s Ludmilla, the (illegal) Russian immigrant housekeeper who lost her job in the name of political expediency but regained it through blackmail.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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