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Black Comedy/The Bowmans (Newbury)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Peter Shaffer’s 1965 farce, a collective virtuoso turn just short enough to run without an interval, is usually paired with a curtain raiser. Director Orla O'Loughlin chooses Galton and Simpson’s classic Tony Hancock sketch, The Bowmans, a wicked send up of archetypal radio soap, The Archers.

It gets things off to a great farcical start, and complements Black Comedy’s sight gags, for as it’s ostensibly radio, much of the fun comes from the incongruity of the ‘radio actors’ and their roles. Intense, bespectacled Rachael Spence, looking like a forerunner of an Apprentice candidate plays the dog and full farmyard repertoire. Scarily smart Sloane Ranger matron Claire Vousden plays the motherly old farmer’s wife. And Will Barton makes a great Hancock, as infuriating as he’s funny, without attempting a slavish impersonation, hogging the microphone to everyone else’s fury, as the cheerful old farmhand with the wise saws beloved of all. Like Black Comedy, it builds to a comic climax, as the cast’s fury threatens to undermine their tearful performances at his character’s ‘deathbed’.

Black Comedy is played as period piece, faithfully set in Swinging London, where penniless sculptor Bryn (expressively frenetic Greg Haste) and his debutante fiancée Carol (Ellie Beaven with a convincing Sloany quack) hope to impress German millionaire art collector Bamberger - and Carol’s ‘monster father’ Colonel Melchett (a martinet Robin Bowerman), not just with his art, but with tasteful antique furniture and fittings. Bryn’s borrowed these without asking from his conveniently absent antique-dealer neighbour, Harold (Jamie Newall having fun as a waspish northern queen). But there’s a blackout – and the disasters pile up for Bryn as Harold returns unexpectedly - and so does his old flame, fellow artist, Clea, (deliciously vampish Spence).

The great joke is the convention that dark and light are reversed. We start in a blackout with Bryn and Carol evidently able to see as they admire the furniture. The stage is flooded with light, revealing Fred Meller’s ingenious split-level set, as there is a powercut and now the pair apparently cannot see a thing. It gets even cleverer as characters produce matches or torches and the lights dip accordingly.

The fun comes from the reversal – and O’Loughlin’s expert choreography. We see every awkward move as Carol gives everyone the wrong drink in the dark – feeding tumblers of gin to teetotal spinster Miss Furnival (an impressively statuesque and rather touching Vousden) who takes refuge during the power cut. The comedy escalates as Bryn staggers around in the dark, attempting to return the furniture before the lights are restored and his ruse is discovered; and sexy Clea slips into the flat under cover of darkness and prepares to bed Bryn again, only to find herself tempted into impersonating the unlikely sounding nocturnal cleaner Mrs Punnet.

Events hurtle towards a climax involving the mixing up of Austrian refugee Schuppanzigh (twinkling David Peart), come from the Electricity Board to mend the fuse and Bamberger (Barton again in a brief cameo) leads to the final belly laugh.

- Judi Herman


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