The main difference between a farce and a riotous comedy seems to come down to one thing - the number of doors. In the latest incarnation of Philip King’s timeless piece, the set is not large - though it still manages to feature four of them - and they all are used with a frequency which reinforces the impression that this is farce at its very best.
Set in the “Dibleyesque” village of Merton-Cum-Middlewick, the opening action harks back to a time in Middle England and the mid-1940s when the most important things in village life were judgemental neighbours and the local gossip. Penelope Toop [Siobhan O’Kelly] is the free-spirited vicar’s wife but she will always be an ex-actress in the eyes of “spinster-of-the-parish” Miss Skillon, who is played with almost matronly aplomb by Lucy Speed.
Miss Skillon is disgusted at the thought of such an unsuitable vicar’s wife and, after seeing her wearing trousers and waving at a passing soldier, she is so incensed that she heads straight for the vicarage to vent her feelings to the vicar, portrayed with ecclesiastical accuracy by Alastair Whatley.
When Mrs Toop’s old friend and acting partner Clive (David Partridge) suddenly turns up the pace quickens and, with the arrival of the Bishop – not to mention a stand-in vicar, a German POW and even a dog - we fall headlong into the uncomfortably hilarious lunacy that makes this piece one of the finest of its genre.
Then Rachel Donovan as the vicar’s cockney maid Ida, steals scene after scene with her attempts at discretion and loyalty to her employers, her dislike of Miss Skillon and some hilarious rubber-faced slapstick at the height of the madness.
Arthur Bostrom is suitably aloof, and more than a little bit camp, as the Bishop of Lax, uncle of Mrs Toop. It is he who, at the height of the confusion, utters the immortal line “Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars!” Rhys King is manic as the escaped POW and Leo Atkin delivers a performance of comic genius as Reverend Humphrey.
Despite the wartime vicarage setting, the humour in this piece is timeless with moments of pure slapstick genius that are extremely well received by the audience. Farce, as a genre, is much maligned in the rather highbrow world of theatre but, for a side-splittingly good night out with laughter guaranteed, catch this production. But do be quick - they run very fast.