The so-called Whitehall Farces took their name from the theatre where they were staged in their heyday in the 1920s and 30s. The name of playwright Ben Travers was synonymous with the success of these fast, funny and furious comedies, characterised by absurd situations and intricate plotting in the town mansions and country houses of the leisured upper classes.
Plunder is the goal of upper crust confidence tricksters Freddy and Prudence Malone. They move in high society - and they move fast to cover their tracks, carrying out expert burglaries at all the best house parties. Now they plan to part the fabulously wealthy Mrs Hewlett from the jewels she’s inherited from her late husband, who elevated her from the status of housekeeper to lady of the house when she inveigled him into marriage. But the plan is complicated by the intervention of his niece, Joan, and her silly ass of a fiancé, D’Arcy Tuck, both furious that they’ve been disinherited by this parvenu and her son Oswald.
Add a blackmailing relative of the widow Hewlett and assorted house guests, staff and policemen and the stage is set for this tale of slow-moving cops and fast-talking robbers. It fits like an elegant kid glove into the Watermill’s intimate surroundings, where the whole theatre space is used for exits and entrances at high velocity.
Colin Falconer’s elegant set is a miracle of versatility, transforming into at least three authentic period settings on which director Heather Davies’ crack cast of ten creates fifteen precisely and wittily-drawn characters between them.
There are stand-out performances from John Sackville’s Malone and Oscar Pearce’s D’Arcy Tuck, who rise brilliantly to the challenge of reinventing the double act of Tom Walls and Ralph Lynn, for whom Travers was charged with writing a succession of such characters – with an identical number of laugh lines each. Their sense of period speech and stance is entirely credible – even their hair shines or flops authentically. Ellie Piercey’s Joan and Kirsty Besterman’s Prudence are bright young things to match and this feel for period is shared by the rest of the cast, from Sarah Whitlock’s Junoesque seaside-postcard Mrs Hewlett and James Bradshaw’s owl-like Oswald to John Ashton and Hugh Fletcher’s pair of coppers.
There might be an underlying current of comment on the equating of love and money - or the airy disregard for the death of a man not because he was a blackmailer but because he was from the wrong class – but if Travers’ purpose is to be seriously funny, this revival does him proud.