The Aldwych farces of Ben Travers have a venerable place in our theatre history, lip service often paid to them as a bridge between Pinero and Alan Ayckbourn – via the trouser-dropping antics of Brian Rix and his Whitehall farce team.
But the interest in Travers reignited by the National’s revival of Plunder in the mid-1970s, followed by the old playwright’s (he died aged 94 in 1980) final liberated fling in The Bed Before Yesterday, has only been sporadically maintained. They are period pieces possessed of manic energy, very difficult to make work today.
Terry Johnson’s Menier revival follows Dominic Dromgoole’s for the Oxford Stage Company four years ago as a charming reminder of trademark Travers. And Tim Shortall has designed a handsomely beamed holiday home, Rookery Nook in Chumpton-on-Sea, where Gerald Popkiss (Neil Stuke) has come ahead of his new bride and her mother only to find himself assailed by a distraught beautiful girl, Rhoda Marley (Kellie Shirley), on the run from a tall and tyrannical German stepfather, Putz (Nick Brimble).
Egged on by his silly ass cousin Clive, or “Clave,” (Edward Baker-Duly), he smuggles the girl upstairs in his pyjama trouser bottoms – she’s wearing them, not him – and withstands the onrush of inquisitive respectability emanating from the mountainous daily woman Mrs Leverett (Lynda Baron) as well as Sarah Woodward’s squinting battle-axe Gertrude Twine.
Gertrude’s husband, Harold, is a dithering nonentity caught up in the shenanigans like a man in a wind tunnel; Mark Hadfield gives a lovely, beatific display of straw boater-chewing nervous apprehension in a world turned upside down. The situation is precariously sustained in dialogue of nonsensical battiness without parallel in English comedy – “If you can’t come here at all, don’t come at the proper time”, huffs Gerald to Mrs Leverett, who has earlier promised to show him the house and quit – “Where’s the quit?” asks the buffoon.
Stuke and Baker-Duly are admirably paired, though I have a sneaking suspicion they should change roles. Stuke needs a haircut, but conveys the right sort of sweating panic by lighting a cigarette and smoking the match. Travers wrote for particular personalities, and Alan Thompson isn’t quite right as Juddy, despite smacking his golf bag as though it were a lady’s backside, while Victoria Yeates is perfect as Poppy Dickey, who comes to the door with a tray of lifeboat flags and strips off to keep Rhoda decent.