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Review: Raising Martha (Park Theatre)

Michael Fentiman directs the world premiere of David Spicer's dark comedy

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The spirit of Joe Orton is alive and well in David Spicer's jet black farce.

It's impossible to fully describe the plot, partly because of spoilers but mainly because you probably wouldn't believe me. The initial premise sees a group of militant animal rights protestors digging up the remains of one Martha Duffy (hence the title) in protest at her son's farm breeding toads for the purposes of vivisection. Throw in a creepy brother, a stroppy niece with her own agenda, a bent copper and a hothouse full of thriving cannabis plants, and...well, actually, you're not even half way there.

There are shades of Spike Milligan at his most lunatic as well as slapstick and some truly groan-worthy jokes in Spicer's breathless, manically funny script. Michael Fentiman's production keeps up a terrific pace, and ensures that however crazy the proceedings get (which is pretty crazy) the cast play it straight throughout, which makes it all the funnier.

Stephen Boxer and Julian Beach are absolutely brilliant as the astonishingly dysfunctional brothers, the one permanently plastered on toad venom and the other haunted by the possibility that he murdered his own mother "with a divine intervention". Jeff Rawle is equally hilarious as a bigoted, self-serving police inspector, and Gwyneth Keyworth is wonderfully obnoxious as Bleach's spoilt brat daughter. Joel Fry is comically earnest as a particularly extreme animal rights campaigner. Tom Bennett proves an authentic, irresistible clown of the highest order as Fry's gormless side kick, as poignant as he is hysterically funny. Basically, this whole cast has funny bones - a reference you won't get until you see this play.

And see it you should, as it often reaches that blissful plateau where it is literally impossible to stop laughing. I could have lived without the human-sized frogs that appear to one of the brothers, and ultimately the entire affair is too heartless to be fully satisfying. Spicer makes some very serious points here about ethical treatment of animals - the ending is particularly grim - and the go-for-broke comic nature of Fentiman's staging does threaten to eclipse that. But if you like your comedy rollicking yet with a seriously dark undertow, then get to the Park.

Raising Martha runs at the Park Theatre until 11 February.

Click here to read our interview with Joel Fry