“Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars!” There are vicars ’ere, there and everywhere, as well as an escaped German prisoner, a bendy-limbed spinster who has been hitting the sherry and an innocent housemaid who is accused of being an accelerator before the fact. If none of this strikes you as funny, then you shall go in peace my child and may God have mercy on your soul.
In my book, See How They Run by Philip King, first performed in 1944 and gloriously revived at the Duchess by Douglas Hodge (taking time out from playing an old misery guts, Titus Andronicus, at the Globe in Southwark), is probably the high point of British farce between Ben Travers and Ray Cooney, and certainly the funniest play in the language.
See How They Run is rooted in all sorts of very British fears such as those we harbour of foreigners, emotional truth and the word of God. The hapless country vicar of Merton-cum-Middlewick, Lionel Toop, is simply submerged in the consequences of his racy wife, Penelope (she wears trousers, for heaven’s sake), innocently resuming a war-time dalliance with an actor, Lance Corporal Clive Winton. Rekindling an on-stage passion – in Coward’s Private Lives – the couple are entangled in a series of misunderstandings veering out of control. All great farces conspire against sanity, wherever it may be found, and this is no exception. The parsonage becomes a madhouse where identities dissolve in mayhem.
Hodge’s production has been slightly re-cast and considerably improved since it went on tour earlier this year. Jo Stone-Fewings, who has served his time at the RSC and is emerging as one of our most brilliantly versatile actors, repeats his hilariously engaging performance as Clive, and is now joined by his off-stage wife, Nancy Carroll – fresh from The Voysey Inheritance at the National – as an enchanting Penelope. The couple’s real-life dog gets a look in, too, bounding across the stage in the chaotic chase for a bite of somebody’s (I think it’s a vicar’s) bottom.
The new improved Bishop of Lax is Tim Pigott-Smith, who is on wonderful comic form, and the necessary ingredients of physical oddity are well provided by Julie Legrand as the devastated spinster Miss Skillon, a village gossip who gains her come-uppance while hanging, senseless, from a coat hook in a convenient cupboard; and by Nicholas Blane as a rotund clergyman, with a lovely sing-song voice, who is labouring under the delusion that his sermon is what everyone is waiting to hear.
This is one of the finest farce productions I have ever seen. It is a feast of delights from start to finish.
- Michael Coveney
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from March 2006 and this production's earlier tour.
There is a sense of total theatre about this smashing little production of Philip King's classic WW2 farce. From the sandbags in the foyer to the drill-hall sergeant warning about mobile phones before curtain up, the aim is to evoke a time when comedy was gentler and morals just a bit more uptight.
The setting is a Home Counties village in wartime England. The young vicar, Reverend Toop (Simon Wilson), is doing his best to keep his young and vibrant ex-actress wife Penelope (Hattie Morahan) on side with the village. But she will insist on doing such scandalous things as wearing trousers and having an opinion of her own.
With Julie Legrand as spinster of the parish Miss Skillon, who had clearly had her own designs on Toop, and Natalie Grady as the Toops’ earthy housekeeper, Ida, there is bound to be an upset when Clive (Jo Stone-Fewings), an ex-colleague of Penelope's, calls round while Toop is away.
What has not changed over the last half century is the comic value of slapstick and sight gags. While director Douglas Hodge takes his time in the early scenes over establishing the moral tone of the piece and getting its tenor just right, as soon as the opportunity to hide behind the sofa or have two actors grappling on the floor comes along, he grabs it with glee.
Such care pays dividends. It allows a modern audience to share elements of the comedy which might have otherwise been lost to them. And it means that for the rest of the time, the actors can get on with the serious business of hiding, grappling, running around in small circles and falling over.
Timing is all in this kind of farce, particularly as the number of vicars on stage increases and, with it, the opportunities for mistaken identity. This large and lively cast are as strong with their entrances and their delivery as they are with the physical side of the comedy.
While Stone-Fewings and Morahan are both excellent - their re-enactment of one of the fights from Private Lives is a treat - it is Legrand who excels in the physical side of the comedy. She makes Miss Skillon a superbly rubber-legged drunk and, with astute characterisation from Grady, allows her scathing relationship with Ida to become a strong second strand.
A great night's entertainment for those prepared to immerse themselves in the old-fashioned way of farce.
Thom Dibdin (reviewed at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh)