See How They Run

Philip King

Richmond Theatre and touring

(2006)

Review by John Thaxter

Back in 1945 three doodle bugs exploded in London during the West End opening night of Philip King’s comedy. No-one budged until after the play was over, but George Gee — who was playing the leading part of a lance corporal— complained at the cast party that all three went off just as he was saying his funniest lines.

Next day the notices were blissful. But instead of reading them ‘in a Cowardesque silk dressing gown and looking wonderful’, King in aircraftsman’s uniform was munching on a thick Spam sandwich in a Shepherd’s Bush workman’s caff, and washing it down with a pint mug of dark brown tea, before going on duty at RAF White City.

Six decades later his play remains arguably the funniest farce ever written, and the only hazard now facing audiences at Douglas Hodge’s sublime touring revival is the pre-recorded 1940s singalong before the curtain goes up, with half the nostalgic grey heads in the stalls joining in.

The wartime setting is the Merton-cum-Middlewick vicarage, where the vicar’s young wife, played with saucy, trousered insouciance by Hattie Morahan, welcomes a lance corporal in battle dress, nimbly played by Jo Stone-Fewings. The secret is that she was once an actress, not so very long ago, when in a touring production of Private Lives, he was Elyot to her Amanda.

Now while the vicar (Simon Wilson) is away on charitable business, all they want to do is indulge their passion for theatricals with a visit to a local revival of the play. But the theatre is out of bounds to troops, so in no time at all he has changed out of uniform and slipped into one of the vicar’s spare outfits, dog collar and all, as off they go for an innocent fun night out, fuelled with booze and a good dinner to follow.

This is just the start of a night of confusion, fear and mistaken identity. And by the time the plot kicks into high speed action we have no less than five vicars on stage, only two of them genuine — one of them a non-running vicar, plumply portrayed by Nicholas Blane — plus a gaitered Bishop, the parish prude, a lolloping dog in hot pursuit, and two other characters who stir a plot that is literally impossible to describe.

You must take my word for it: see the show for yourself and have the biggest laugh of the year, one that will surely have a West End future.

The most delightful revelation is Julie Legrand, usually thought of as a queen of tragic drama. Here we discover her as comic actress and clown of genius, playing a sherry-fuelled spinster, the teetotal Miss Skillon who, turning up on her bicycle to complain of being upstaged in the Harvest Festival celebrations, instead finds herself in a display of bloomers, bountiful erotic joy, and coat-cupboard humiliation.

Benjamin Whitrow as the visiting Bishop, uncle to the vicar’s wife, enjoys the funniest line of the play: “Sergeant — arrest several of these people”; and there’s a glorious professional theatre debut for Natalie Grady, straight out of drama school, as the droll knowing young maid Ida, a performance that marks her out as an upcoming comedy star of the brightest magnitude.

Without giving the plot away the evening also includes a fine Teutonic cameo from Adrian Fear, susceptible to a tickle under the armpit; and Chris Macdonnell in a commanding performance as an army sergeant, carrying out a farcical interrogation to discover who is genuinely who among the several assorted clerics.

Towards the end, and for a brief moment or two, I thought the play was running out of steam. But it was actually the audience, suffering a temporary state of exhaustion from laughing too much and too often. Don’t miss.

Touring to Norwich 14-18 March; Newcastle 21-25 March; Sheffield 28 March-1 April; and Malvern 4-8 April.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at Newcastle and Philip Fisher saw it on its West End transfer at the Duchess Theatre