Your reaction to these goings-on is likely to be coloured by your appetite for watching ritual humiliation, be that of unsuspecting audience members hauled up on stage, an obvious "plant" in it or just the ferocious and unrelenting knockabout action. Perhaps I'm of a generation conditioned by newsreel footage of the deliberate humiliation of victims perpetrated by the Hitlerian and Cultural Revolution regimes, but most of this left a sour taste in my mouth, for all the special pleading in the programme notes.
The physical comedy is directed by Cal McCrystal with split-second timing, marvellously executed by his cast and enhanced by Mark Thompson's clever sets which pay homage to 18th century stagecraft. Grant Oldham's sore is catchy and finely in period with a sharp-suited, oiled quiffed quartet – Richie Hart, Philip Murray-Watson, Oliver Seymour-Marsh and Billy Stookes (wherever did they source that washboard?) – introducing the action and covering scene-changes.
Rufus Hound is the sorely-tried factotum Francis Henshall caught up through his own greed in the Kray-style disputes of the Clench and Crabbe families. He knows how to work an audience and has the professional comedian's art of turning on-stage mishaps into successes. Peter Caulfield's applause-winning turn as the doddering old waiter Alfie, Edward Bennett's gung-ho Stanley Stubbers (a dab hand with a cricket bat), Rosie Wyatt's cross-dressing Rachel Crabbe and Leon Williams as the OTT wannabe thespian Alan Dangle are all impressive within this context.
How much you enjoy it all is, for me at
any rate, a matter of appreciating the performers for their pure
efficiency and obvious commitment to what is by any standards an
exhausting display of theatrical skill. Physical theatre at its best,
then – but also pushing hard at its boundary with the unacceptable. To the
actors and musicians then, I would have no hesitation in awarding
them five stars. But as a piece of unalloyed entertainment, that
total has to reduce to...