Ben Travers wrote every character in his three-act farces like a tailor cuts a bespoke suit: with a particular actor in mind. So you can sympathise with the cast in Eleanor Rhode's production at the new Park Theatre for sometimes struggling to make the 1927 farce fit their frames properly; they're shopping in the High Street, not Savile Row.
On the whole, they do pretty well, though there's a lot of effort put into making lines sound funny which would sound funnier with a lot less. And Clive Francis – who plays the lecherous old Sir Hector Benbow with a gleam in his eye (and his monocle) – has fiddled around with the text, cut one character altogether (an investigative journalist in the last act whom the plot needs, really) and not cleared up the messy and too suddenly prosecuted finale in the haunted house.
That house, Thark, in Norfolk, has been sold, Sir Hector hopes, to an old trout, Mrs Frush, whose silly-ass son Lionel takes a shine first to the young shop-girl Cherry Buck, whom Sir Hector has invited to dinner in the first act, and then to Sir Hector's nephew's "intended," Kitty Stratton; and Lady Benbow keeps getting in everyone's way.
And spoiling their plans, which leads to Sir Hector passing off Cherry as Mrs Frush just ten seconds, of course, before Mrs Frush enters. "I don't go out with strangers," says Lucy May Barker's pert Cherry to Lionel; "I wish I could find someone who does," replies Richard Beanland's toothy Lionel, twisting himself into a question mark.
This linguistic zing and surrealism stamps all of Travers' famed Aldwych farces, though I didn't catch one of my favourite lines on opening night ("Don't bend down like that, you look like a prawn"); nor did I really get the natural rhythmic nuttiness Travers wrote for Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn as Benbow and his nephew, Ronny Gamble, admirably approximated in a brilliant partnership of Dinsdale Landen and Griff Rhys Jones at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1990.
That said, Francis is suitably dyspeptic and lip-smackingly louche as Sir Hector, while James Dutton's tall and bendy, apple-cheeked Ronny may miss the glazed, Bertie Wooster-ish misplaced confidence the role demands, but brings a nice brand of awkward goofiness to bear.
Their "Eric and Ernie" men-in-bed scene, though, is hampered by the narrowness of the bed (a fine piece of furniture which also serves as an upright cupboard and horizontal table) and doesn't catch fire.
Claire Cartwright as Kitty embodies best the required style, while Andrew Jarvis as ghastly ghostly retainer, Jones, aka Death, is the sort of silver salver-bearing kill-joy who would scare a man over his port: "It really isn't on," says Ronny… cue thunderclap, wind and lightning.