Richard Bean’s new “political sex farce” In the Club premiered last week (2 August, previews from 25 July) at north London’s Hampstead Theatre where it runs until 25 August, starring James Fleet as Philip Wardrobe, probably best known for his role as Hugo Horton in The Vicar of Dibley (See 20 Questions, 30 Jul 2007).

Hapless MEP Philip Wardrobe has a busy day ahead of him, balancing his less-than-irreproachable political career with his attempts to start a family. As he prepares for his girlfriend to fly in from Kettering for an afternoon of fertile frolics, his plan to be voted President of the European Parliament is foiled at every turn by unpredictable colleagues: uncouth Yorkshiremen, irate Turks and amorous Frenchwomen ... to say nothing of the mysterious man in the linen cupboard.

Writer Richard Bean worked as a psychologist, model and stand-up comedian before turning to writing. His hit play Harvest premiered at the Royal Court in September 2005 and won him the Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play as well as nominations at the Evening Standard, Laurence Olivier and Awards. Bean’s other plays include Under the Whaleback, The God Botherers, Up on the Roof and Honeymoon Suite.

Joining Fleet in Bean’s latest play are Anna Francolini (Beatrice Renard), Carol Macready (Frau Flugelhammerlein), Sian Brooke (Sasha) and Dermot Canavan (Gendarme). The premiere production is directed by David Grindley and designed by Jonathan Fensom.

Most of the first night critics, who all had a pretty good idea of what they looked for in a farce, left impressed with the design of the production by Jonathan Fensom but felt that perhaps it was making up for what was actually lacking in Richard Bean’s “unfunny” script. But most admit that there at least a few amusing scenes and some funny lines, with the actors putting in a good effort, although it’s not going to be the next West End comic hit. If critical predictions prove correct, In the Club will not be the West End’s next big comic hit.

  • Michael Coveney on (two stars) - “You could accuse Richard Bean of many things, but you can’t accuse him of leaving anything out. His ‘political sex farce’, In the Club, is so crammed with every cliché and every possible gag of the genre, and its cast of actors so desperate to please the audience, that it forgets, on the whole, to be funny … Fleet is a quick actor and, as the mayhem mounts, he never loses his rag, though his jaw drops quite often. So do his trousers … David Grindley’s production, on a handsome hotel bedroom design by Jonathan Fensom that screams ‘I’m ready for the West End’, is pitched at so high a level, you can never care about the characters. The first rule in farce is that those involved must really feel the pinch. The second is that the events must be skilfully engineered otherwise the ‘one damned thing after another’ syndrome starts feeding an audience’s capacity for sullen resentment; which is what happens here … It is a brilliantly sustained but entirely unfunny performance that seems to sum up the whole enterprise.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) – “The test of a good farce is brutally simple. Never mind its author’s pretensions, which may stretch beyond whizzing through doors and hiding in cupboards. If the thing makes you laugh, it’s good. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. So Michael Frayn’s thespian farce Noises Off is good, very good. For me, sitting po-faced in row G, Richard Bean’s In the Club wasn’t … Bean clearly thinks the EU an abysmally corrupt institution, which is fine. The trouble is that the logic that farce needs often seems missing. An EU fraud sleuth hides with his listening device in the cupboard but seems fazed, not by sinister Turks and their bulging suitcases, but by the possibility that one of Wardrobe’s lovers may be making false claims on her farm … As the strenuous antics escalated, I found myself believing less and less and so laughing less and less. Also, there’s a coarseness here that David Grindley’s production can’t conceal. Never mind the easy gibes: ‘I’m a Belgian’; ‘Bad luck’. But you don’t have to admire Peter Mandelson to wince when Wardrobe’s boorish UKIP chum compares him with a celebrated dictator: ‘Stalin was a fascist and mass murderer but at least he weren’t a poof.’ Yuk.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Richard Bean's new play is ‘a political sex farce’. While farce is the most vibrant theatrical form, and Bean's play has wildly inventive moments, the attempt to combine the styles of Alistair Beaton and Ray Cooney leads to a division of purpose: either the politics gets in the way of the sex, or the sex obscures the politics … One problem is the setting. Where political farces such as Whipping It Up and Feelgood relied on a familiar local background, Bean has to spend a good deal of time explaining divisions between Christian Democrats and European Democrats over Turkey … Once Bean has got the plot motoring, though, he comes up with some inspired moments. He is particularly good at creating lively minor characters, including a fanatical Yorkshireman who makes Bernard Ingham look like a southern softie.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph - “I really wanted to flag-wave like crazy on behalf of this new Euro satire-cum-sex farce by Richard Bean. At last, here's a dramatist of considerable comic ability turning his attention to a subject that's big and important and doing so in a way that's calculated to be populist and enjoyable rather than elitist and earnest. But despite the fact that In the Club contains more corking one-liners than a whole season of new plays in London put together, there's no disguising the fact that it doesn't quite hang together: the action becomes increasingly contrived and knotty, the laughter ever more strained … You feel Bean could still have had a real crowd-pleaser on his hands and done more satirical damage if he'd simply attacked the duller aspects of EU tyranny ... Unlike the architects of the EU constitution, Bean doesn't need to go back to the drawing board, but if this is to warrant a West End transfer, a few tweaks are required.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (one star) - “I found myself bored to distraction by Richard Bean's ‘political sex farce’. I was repelled by the loutish simplicities of its Europhobic politics, by its braying chauvinism and the author's pathetic, schoolboy-ish belief that characters messing around with the odd vibrator, handcuffs and a prosthetic hand were tokens of an imaginative, sexually driven sense of humour … Twiglets, sex accessories, a fraudulent fraud investigator, the blindfolded wardrobe, and a legless archbishop are laboriously employed as misbegotten plot accessories and would-be laughter-makers. The actors worked frantically and stirred up my apathy. Wardrobe's final surrender to romantic sentimentality leaves In the Club where it belongs - wallowing in slush.”

    - by Tom Atkins