Actor-director Douglas Hodge - currently on stage himself in Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy Titus Andronicus at the Globe – takes a total change of pace by directing Philip King’s classic wartime farce See How They Run. The new production opened at the West End’s Duchess Theatre last night (29 June 2006, previews from 20 June), following a regional tour (See News, 28 Apr 2006).

Written in 1942, See How They Run premiered in Peterborough in 1944 before touring the country three times and, still in the midst of the Second World War, transferring to the West End’s Comedy Theatre in 1945 – three doodle bugs fell on London on the play’s opening night. It’s credited as the original “English vicar” play – at one stage, five men in dog collars are lined up on stage - and inspired the long-running TV comedy series Dad’s Army.

In the West End, Nancy Carroll appears alongside her real-life husband Jo Stone-Fewings (the couple’s dog Digby also makes a cameo onstage appearance) in a cast that also includes Tim Pigott-Smith, Julie Legrand, Nicholas Blane, Adrian Fear, Natalie Grady, Chris MacDonnell and Nicholas Rowe.

Overnight critics were mainly delighted to see Philip King’s madcap comedy – which several acknowledged as the first of all modern farces - back in the West End, despite some reservations that it may be too antiquated with limited appeal for modern audiences.

  • Michael Coveney on - “In my book, See How They Run… is probably the high point of British farce between Ben Travers and Ray Cooney, and certainly the funniest play in the language. All great farces conspire against sanity, wherever it may be found, and this is no exception. The parsonage becomes a madhouse where identities dissolve in mayhem. Hodge’s production has been slightly re-cast and considerably improved since it went on tour earlier this year. Jo Stone-Fewings… repeats his hilariously engaging performance as Clive, and is now joined by his off-stage wife Nancy Carroll… as an enchanting Penelope…. The new improved Bishop of Lax is Tim Pigott-Smith, who is on wonderful comic form… This is one of the finest farce productions I have ever seen. It is a feast of delights from start to finish.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - Aside from Donkeys' Years, we farce-fanciers have been starved of late. So it is a delight to welcome Philip King's wartime classic back into the West End after a gap of 22 years. And, watching Douglas Hodge's superb revival, I was struck by the play's quintessential Englishness. For a start, it could only work in a country that found vicars cherishably funny… Where French farce is about sex, English farce also depends on words. It's hard to explain why the name of the resident vicar, Lionel Toop, is funny: it just is… But Hodge realises that farce is chiefly about performance; and accordingly, he has engaged a crack team… It may be an evening tinged with nostalgia. But it proves that farce is the essence of theatre in that it requires physical agility, spot-on timing and is capable of transforming a preposterous situation into spiralling ecstasy.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the The Times - Nightingale watched “Douglas Hodge’s sprightly revival of Philip King’s wartime farce through tears of laughter… You won’t be surprised to learn that the village is called Merton-cum-Middlewick. Indeed, you half expect to see Captain Mainwaring escorting Miss Marple through the churchyard or Sergeant Wilson fêting Mrs Tiggywinkle in the Royal British Legion hut. But this isn’t an especially cosy piece. On the contrary, it often seems to be sending itself up… there’s a sort of jaunty invulnerability, a cheerful imperviousness, about such stuff that’s as inspiriting as it’s maddening. And Hodge’s cast have the ultimate excuse: they are very funny."

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - "See How They Run is far more surprising and brave than any modernistic black-mood drama about the politics of despair... It belongs to an era when theatre was there to raise morale and send people home with a chuckle in their souls... I almost gnawed off my knuckles in discomfort at how old-fashioned and hokey it all felt... but then the ludicrousness took over, and by the end I was cackling as merrily as the rest of the mainly elderly audience."

  • Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard - Contrary to his peers, Curtis found that See How They Run was not to his taste, though he conceded that “lovers of outrageously contrived wartime farces will love this outrageously contrived wartime farce. Philip King's 1944 comedy features a welter of unlikely misunderstandings and no fewer than five capering clergymen, mostly fake and all in varying states of undress. Quite what it's doing in the West End now is anybody's guess. It's easy to see how such gleeful absurdity stiffened upper lips and tickled funny bones in the doodlebug-studded last year of the war. Today, the play seems an amusing but terribly creaky curio.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell