John Chapman’s Dry Rot feels like a time capsule from a lost world of spivvery, nice public schoolboys, simpleton servants, retired colonels, funny foreigners, and comic coppers.
Three small time crooks attempt to make money by switching horses, and then when that doesn’t work, switching jockeys. Their centre of operations is a country hotel run by a retired colonel, his wife, and daughter, as well as a ‘you can’t get the help’ local maid. As cover for their actions they have engaged a fresh-faced innocent as secretary, who falls in love with the daughter of the house – which has, naturally, dry rot on the stairs through which characters periodically fall. Enter an incomprehensible French jockey, who is eventually himself nobbled, and the action builds to the climactic race with one of the crooks substituting for him – and winning the race.
Some of the play’s humour has undoubtedly dated (particularly its relish in the non-U social gormlessness of the crooks), as has its language, and some actors, particularly the younger ones, struggle to bring to life the play’s by now rather elderly two-dimensional caricatures. Some of the strongest performances came from relatively minor parts, like Nicky Goldie’s Mrs Wagstaff is deadpan and exasperated by turns.
Louise Yates’ Sergeant Fire stands out with some skilfully-choreographed comic business in a play which has perhaps too much business in it. George Banks’s secretary George Danby is a finely judged homage to the nicely puzzled young men of 50s cinematic light comedy, whilst sending them up at the same time.
Ian Forrest’s direction is packed with physical ideas, so much so that in places it feels as though the actors were trying too hard to generate laughs from their own virtuosity as performers. The pace is good, and there are plenty of laughs, though some of them feel rather as though they have been tickled out of the audience.
A special mention must be made of Martin Johns’s painstakingly crafted set, which impressively provides a grounded period feel and the requisite number of levels, entrances and exits (including secret passage). Dry Rot has some good comic performances, but the deficiencies of the play mean that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.