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Review Round-up: Johnson's Nook No Travers-ty

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Ben Travers' classic Aldwych farce Rookery Nook was revived this week at the Menier Chocolate Factory (29 April, previews from 16 April), marking the return of director Terry Johnson, who scored a definite hit for the 150-seat venue last time around with his multi-award winning production of La Cage aux Folles.

In the play, first seen in 1926, newly married playboy Gerald Popkiss is on his way to Rookery Nook with his new wife Clara and his mother-in-law. Forced to travel on alone when his mother-in-law suddenly falls sick, Gerald arrives to find quite a commotion. A beautiful young girl has been thrown out of the house next door in nothing but her pink silk pyjamas and begs him to let her stay. Gerald must find the young girl some clothes and, until then, keep her hidden from his sister-in-law Gertrude, who lives nearby, and Rookery Nook's meddling maid, Mrs Leverett.

The cast features Neil Stuke (Gerald), Clare Wilkie (Clara), Edward Baker-Duly (Clive), Lynda Baron (Mrs Leverett), Kellie Shirley, Sarah Woodward,  Alan Thompson, Nick Brimble and Mark Hadfield.

“Made me laugh more than is seemly or sensible” confessed the Evening Standard's Nick Curtis, filling in following the departure of Nicholas de Jongh. But despite the laughs there were grumblings from some quarters ranging in subject from a tame final act to, from Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, the length of Neil Stuke's hair. But these didn't detract from a general consensus that with Rookery Nook, director Terry Johnson proves himself - in the words of the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer -  “a man who really knows his farce from his elbow”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 … 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 ... 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.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “This revival by Terry Johnson, a man who really knows his farce from his elbow, proves a comic delight … Sarah Woodward is the comic monster of one’s dreams as the bossy sister-in-law, while her poor husband, played with a brilliant mixture of panic and infinite sorrow by Mark Hadfield, actually starts eating his straw hat in terror. Edward Baker-Duly proves a natural successor to Terry-Thomas as a caddish charmer and my only major complaint is that instead of building to a riotous climax, some of the fizz goes out of the show in the last act.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) - “It has nothing to say about the credit crunch, swine flu or whether or not Godot is a cove worth waiting for. And yet this revival of Ben Travers’ 1926 farce is pitched so perfectly that it can make you forget about all such serious issues … OK, nobody’s going to get arrested for underplaying, but then that’s not their job: everyone in this superb cast has huge fun without ever looking like they’re just larking about ... Getting away with comedy this broad takes incredible precision. Johnson knows his target, and hits it.”
  • Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Terry Johnson’s frantically precise production for the ever-surprising Chocolate Factory made me laugh more than is seemly or sensible … Neil Stuke strains a bit to incarnate Gerald’s abject desperation. But he carries off with panache the comic physical business. Kellie Shirley has just the right air of heedless pulchritude as the runaway, Rhoda, curling and flexing like a Cheshire cat. Edward Baker-Duly has a name and a languid swagger perfect for this sort of stuff, and he delivers a splendidly deft, airy performance as Clive … Best not to look too closely at the plot, much less the sexual politics. Travers takes delight in linguistic and romantic confusion, and absurdity for its own sake.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “You either love farce or you don't. But even an addict like myself would have to admit there are moments when Ben Travers' 1926 specimen seems a bit strenuous. If the piece survives, as it does in Terry Johnson's stylish revival, it is largely as a vehicle for skilled performers to display the key farce qualities of panic, fluster and outrage ... To enter Travers' world is to go back in time to an era when sex was irredeemably naughty and blustering Germans and spluttering admirals were automatically funny. But it is worth making the effort, if only to understand the ultimate source of a play like Michael Frayn's Noises Off - and to relish, as here, farce acting at its dexterous best.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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