See How They Run
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
For its Christmas production, the Royal Exchange, which always tries to avoid the more obvious festive fare, has resurrected Philip King's wartime farce See How They Run.
Written towards the end of World War II, this could not be more stereotypical as a a mid-twentieth century farce, complete with vicars, mistaken identities, chases, people in their underwear, cupboards, doors and lots of tea on a set by designer Paul Wills that cleverly manages to feature a large wooden staircase and an under-stairs cupboard.
Reverend Lionel Toop is married to former actress and niece of the bishop, Penelope, whose open-minded ways and opinions jar with the views of some members of the village, as voiced strongly by Miss Skillon. The imminent arrival of Penelope's uncle the Bishop, whom Lionel has never met, clashes, while Lionel is out, with the surprise visit of one of Penelope's acting friends Clive, now in the army, the early arrival of Reverend Humphrey, who is to take the next day's Harvest Festival service, and the escape of a German prisoner-of-war.
Of course this good middle-class household descends into chaos, and the more the characters try to hide the problems the worse everything gets, just like in any well-written farce, and in its pace, the agonising piling up of embarrassment and layering of deceptions and the tortuous twists in the plot that nevertheless remains easy to follow, this is pretty well put together. The telephone conversations are cringeingly contrived, but most of the dialogue is perfectly serviceable and there are at least as many good laughs from gags as from the ridiculousness of the plot.
Somewhere near the centre of most of the action is the cheeky servant Ida, played in a very obviously comic physical and vocal style by Kate O'Flynn, but then this play is not a very good vehicle for psychological realism and her performance got a lot of very big laughs and a few rounds of applause. Nick Caldecott is also charmingly quirky and funny as Reverend Toop, with Laura Rogers in her cut-glass English accent judging the central role of his wife just right and holding the whole plot together strongly.
Alexandra Mathie is also perfect as the tweedy Miss Skillon, and the towering figure of Arthur Bostrom is very commanding as the Bishop, even when he is just wearing some tattered pyjamas and some bits of ivy and delivering the great line, "sergeant, arrest most of these vicars". Hugh Sachs does not appear until after the interval, but he is absolutely superb as Reverend Humphrey, bewildered about all the chaos happening around him that the others have, by this point, become resigned to. John Branwell, who also makes a late appearance onstage, gets all the available laughs out of the relatively small part of Captain Mainwaring lookalike Sergeant Towers, who is looking for the escaped prisoner. The cast is completed by Mark Edel-Hunt as the German escapee and Chris Harper as Clive.
The pace isn't quite perfect, but is pretty close and will probably be spot on by the end of the week. Director Sarah Frankcom doesn't have a great deal of popular knockabout comedy on her CV and the Royal Exchange isn't renowned for putting on old-fashioned, shamelessly-popular farce, but maybe both should reconsider. On the press night, there were huge belly laughs coming from members of the public, press reviewers and highly-respected members of the acting profession, and it's a long time since I've left the Royal Exchange feeling like I've had such a good time.
Playing to 24th January, 2009
Reviewer: David Chadderton