Penny For a Song at the Whitehall Theatre
Why is this strangely old-fashioned play being revived now? John Whiting was not in step with the times during his lifetime and this play, which hankers for a mythical view of Olde England seems highly inappropriate for Cool Britannia.
Purportedly about the reactions of an eccentric English aristocratic family to the threat of an invasion by Napoleon's army, the real impetus was the threat of an invasion by Hitler. The comic local militia must have been written with the local Home Guard in mind. Whiting tries to give us a glimpse of the paranoia that was prevalent then but, in reality, he doesn't begin to reflect the spirit of the age - for a play that was written at the height of the cold war, it seems remarkably free of rancour and real enmity.
The only note of seriousness that Whiting introduces is in the character of Edward Sterne, the young radical. Here is someone who could have offered a Jimmy Porter-like commentary on the world. Indeed, in the original version of this play, he had been blinded in battle and provided a bitter reminder of what war was really about. By the time that Whiting revised the play in 1963, however, Sterne had been much watered down.
In the end, the invasion doesn't happen. There are a few jokes about cricket (which of course, foreigners don't play), a match is arranged, there's drinking to be done and songs to be sung and another English summer day passes. There's nothing really wrong with Penny For a Song. It's what used to be called a well-made play: there are a few good jokes and it's a pleasant way to pass the time. And Paul Miller's direction neither helps nor hinders, being functional rather than inspiring. He doesn't attempt to bring out the darker side of the play, certainly the paranoia is brushed over.
On the plus side, this production benefits from some fine comic acting. Julian Glover is a droll Hallam Matthews, the family friend who acts as a fulcrum for most of the play's events. Charles Kay is equally good as Timothy Bellboys, the eccentric baronet who conjures up the mad idea of confusing the enemy with his Napoleon disguise. Jeremy ClydeGabrielle Drake are well-matched as the Bellboys' family (in whose house the action takes place) and Brian Protheroe is amusing as the Captain Mainwaring-like leader of the militia. The only uncertain note is struck by Richard Lynch's Edward Sterne. This is a most flaccid revolutionary and proves easy meat for Matthews' cynical comments.
But then that's the trouble with the play itself. Whiting doesn't want argument and controversy. Unlike John Osborne who tried to choke the life out of the traditions of England, Whiting positively relished them. Still, though this play might be out of step with the times, the audience clearly enjoyed it, and it is a well-acted evening's entertainment.