Initially it’s rather odd to find the Oxford Stage Company and its outgoing artistic director Dominic Dromgoole (soon to succeed Mark Rylance at Shakespeare’s Globe) turning attention to Ben Travers’ 1926 farce, Rookery Nook, both having built deserved reputations on meatier fare. On the other hand, no company is better at revisiting classic plays of the last hundred years (recently including ones by the likes of John Arden, Brendan Behan and David Storey) and the Aldwych farces do have a claim to classic status.
The only mildly disappointing element is the fact that Rookery Nook lacks the farcical motor and internal logic of the plays of, say, Pinero or Feydeau where an extraordinary event in an ordinary situation builds up apparently unstoppable momentum. Travers kicks off with the compromising late-night arrival of pyjama-clad Rhoda Marley (Jane Murphy as the epitome of knowing innocence), escaping her ferocious Prussian step-father (the formidable John Dougall), at the house occupied by recently-married Gerald Popkiss whose wife, significantly, is not with him. Standing by are Popkiss’ inventively irresponsible cousin, his severely moral sister-in-law, the gossiping “daily woman”, and so on – all characters to make the situation worse.
From then on the plot is a hurdle course, negotiating one obstacle and culminating in a burst of violent fury from Herr Putz without having really gone anywhere. Travers’ saving grace is his lightness of touch, a virtue shared by Dromgoole’s production. This is a slight confection, even in length – two-and-a-quarter hours takes in two intervals! – and never pretends otherwise. The only departure from period re-creation is the colour scheme of Jessica Curtis’ elegant double-staircase set: black and red, with lurid patterns visible through the many obligatory doors.
Ben Travers, of course, was writing for a regular established company and shaping lines and business to the actors’ personas and abilities. OSC wisely attempts no imitation, but it’s possible to see the spirit of Robertson Hare behind Richard Henders’ constant panic and expectation of humiliation as Harold Twine, the hat-chewing husband of the memorably sour Gertrude (Fiona Battisby). As Gerald, Benjamin Davies inherits the mixed-up lines and back-to-front sentences of the champion silly-ass Ralph Lynn and, if he sometimes struggles to make them funny, he forms a stylish and light-on-their-feet double-act with William Mannering as cousin Clive.
A world where respectability wars with barely suppressed desire is well summed up in Susan Porrett’s inconsequential dignity as Mrs Leverett, the daily woman, and Rhiannon Oliver’s delightful cameo as Poppy, the lifeboat girl who is surely not saving herself. In a deft and accomplished company of nine, only Nicola Alexis, elegantly restrained as the late-arriving wife, is denied a moment of inspired lunacy.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds)