Here’s a real collector’s item, and a fascinating farcical evening: three one-act skirmishes by the Victorian playwright John Maddison Morton, who was recommended by Gordon Craig to Kenneth Tynan as “the funniest playwright that England had ever had.”
Tynan, in turn, told John Gielgud in a letter that Morton was funnier than Feydeau. And one of the three plays on this bill, An Unwarrantable Intrusion, was presented on Tynan’s watch – to negligible critical acclaim, it has to be said – at the National Theatre in 1968, with Derek Jacobi playing a flustered suitor interrupting his putative father-in-law’s privacy and breakfast.
That role is here taken by the marvellous Edward Bennett (who stood in for David Tennant as Hamlet), and the avuncular Snoozle – who says he’d like to go shooting if only there were a few more grouse in St John’s Wood – by a whiskery, peppery Clive Francis. The two of them end up hilariously improvising a surreal conclusion as their own, their very own, selves.
A programme notes suggest a foretaste here of the Goons and Monty Python, and there’s certainly a pronounced strain of verbal lunacy and unbuttoned silliness in Henry Bell’s lively production.
But there’s a good old-fashioned music hall quality here, too, with Francis presiding in the first play, Slasher & Crasher, over two happy endings that start with a curtain call and involve the chairman of the Uxbridge anti-duelling association (Stuart Fox) caught up in a physical free-for-all.
There’s also a chap (David Oakes) who hides in a cupboard full of jams, his private passion; two simpering fiancées (nicely done by Jennifer Higham and Natalie Ogle); and a pair of trousers that nestle around the wearer’s ankles more readily even than Briax Rix’s. The third play, Grimshaw, Bagshaw and Bradshaw, is an accumulation of word play and cupboard hopping based on claims made on the one set of lodgings by various parties including a chemist’s soliloquising shop assistant and a medical student on the run from his tailor’s bill.
It’s a lost world brought vividly to life, the plays researched and edited by Colin Chambers, the former RSC literary manager, and mischievously topped and tailed by some quirky summarising ditties by the ukulele-strumming Daniel Cheyne, who mingles with the audience in the bar during the intervals.
Morton’s writing is full of realistic detail, and his characters have an immediate flavour because of their material circumstances and predicaments; there’s a zany twist in his writing, too, which is immensely appealing, and almost – steady on — modern.