Cox & Box – Mrs Bouncer's Legacy (Stephen Joseph Theatre)

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s one act comic opera is reinvented with a brand new second act.

Though inspiration may be uneven in the texts of both the one-acters that make up the evening, the performances are filled with so much warmth and such a sense of enjoyment (and so much talent) that it is impossible not to like them.

Paul Ryan (Mrs Bouncer), Charlotte Harwood (Box) and Lara Stubbs (Cox) in Box and Cox.
Paul Ryan (Mrs Bouncer), Charlotte Harwood (Box) and Lara Stubbs (Cox) in Box and Cox.
© Tony Bartholomew

The original Cox and Box is a one-act farce written by F.C. Burnand and Arthur Sullivan in the days before the composer collaborated with W.S. Gilbert; incidentally, Gilbert, reviewing it in 1866, found the music superior to the text and I see no reason to disagree with him.

The plot is simplicity itself: unbeknown to each other two young men, one a day worker, one working nights as a printer, share a room, with Sergeant Bouncer, the landlord, claiming double rent. When they finally meet, all kinds of coincidental connections emerge.

There are some splendidly absurd moments, but it easy to see why the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company presented it in a shortened version for many years! As adapted by director Chris Monks and musical director Richard Atkinson (the sole accompanist), Cox & Box pitches even further towards the topsy-turvy.

The landlord becomes a landlady, played by a man, and both young men are played by young women! Textual alterations are happily nonsensical – the Sergeant’s military "Rataplan" turning into "Fetch a pan" for Mrs. Bouncer’s nursing and domestic duties. In Atkinson’s adaptation of the music for different voice registers, the singing is first-class throughout.

Paul Ryan‘s knowing, slyly respectable Mrs. Bouncer is a joy and Lara Stubbs and Charlotte Harwood are delightfully parodic males, even making something of Burnand’s more tortuous sentences and attacking his running gags with gleeful freshness.

Then Monks and Atkinson take over in their own right. The sequel is set in the same room a little while in the future when the United Kingdom has left the European Union and is deporting foreigners. The landlord, Bob Narks, is an out-and-out xenophobe who is letting the room to Urszula from Gdansk who has learnt enough Yorkshire to convince the dull-witted Bob that she comes from Rotherham. Her other secret is that her sister is staying secretly in the room while she tries to make a career as a boxer in England! Sometimes the ingenuity is over-strained, but there is plenty of surreal farce and the witty lyrics are set to catchy tunes, frequently comically allusive as were Sullivan’s.

Paul Ryan, a leeringly nimble Bob Narks, and Lara Stubbs and Charlotte Harwood, energetic, animated and absurdly accented, are again excellent; Kraig Thornber‘s choreography is great fun in both plays; and Tim Meacock (design) and Tigger Johnson (lighting) join in the over-the-top jollity and produce a magical contribution to the final denouement.

Cox & Box – Mrs Bouncer’s Legacy continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 30 August 2014.