Every Christmas, while other theatres fill with dames and beanstalks, the Royal Exchange always proudly provides an alternative to pantomime. Previous years have seen gentle comedies like Harvey and Cyrano de Bergerac, delighting audiences.
This year, the Exchange has followed a different path and produced a riot of slapstick and physical comedy in the shape of Philip King's See How They Run. It might not have the eloquence of Cyrano, but it is certainly no less funny or engaging.
The story is convoluted and confusing, as you would expect from a farce. Set during World War II it includes a vicar, his wife, the village busy-body, a bishop, a visiting soldier, the maid, another vicar, another soldier and an escaped German prisoner-of-war. I won't reveal any more except to say that yes, there are scenes with a vicar in his underwear, and yes, there is a cupboard for people to hide in. It is fantastic knockabout stuff that keeps the audience laughing, gasping, groaning and cheering.
Each character is a larger than life, as befits the nature of play and recent TMA and MEN award winner Kate O'Flynn who plays Ida, the maid, is particularly good, with her strong accent and wild body-language producing some of the best laughs. Alexandra Mathie also deserves praise for the wonderful physicality she brings to the role of Miss Skillon.
As well as slapstick, there is also great dialogue, with some of the best one-liners being delivered by Chris Harper, as Lance-Corporal Clive, and Hugh Sachs, as Reverend Humphrey. That said, everyone gets a turn to be both clown and wit, and the combination is infectious, with audience laughter sometimes running sporadically for minutes after the joke that caused it.
Paul Wills's set design perfectly evokes the war-time period in which the play was both written and set, with the many different entrances and exits being especially suited to the Exchange's flexible space. Sarah Frankcom's direction works wonders in a play that never stands still for a moment and requires a lot of carefully tuned interactions.
A traditional British farce may not be to everyone's taste, but I would advise anyone to give this a try. It is not one of the 'bedroom'-type farces which became notorious in the seventies, but a clever, witty and, above all, fun, play which will keep you enthralled and laughing even after you leave the theatre.
If you need proof, I was still laughing when I got home!