All Above Board

Nigel Planer
Northern Comedy Theatre
The Preston Playhouse

All Above Board

This might be the perfect time to première new farces. In our not-quite-post-COVID limbo, with theatres reopened but no one knows for how long, there’s something giddy, chaotic and slightly unhinged in the air. We are desperate for it to be over, desperate to laugh again. A generous crowd at Preston’s bijou Playhouse theatre try so hard to love Nigel Planer’s new farce, All Above Board.

The vast sums of money brought to the nation’s economy by the West End are, of course, central to current arguments for ongoing and increased support—especially when those appeals are aimed at a government which only seems to comprehend the ‘price of everything’. However, should times get even harder than they are now (as well they might), it will be places like the Playhouse, with its mature and loyal patrons, who preserve the guttering flame of British theatre. These places and the people who keep them open deserve better than they get tonight.

Like a hapless first round contestant on Celebrity MasterChef, Planer has gathered up many of the necessary ingredients; he just hasn’t hit upon a recipe to chop, stir and simmer them into something tasty. What we have here is more the chuck-everything-into-a-blender-and-see-what-comes-out approach.

Former banker Timothy Upton-Fell (Robert Stuart-Hudson) is anxious to cast off the negative image of his career (cue several attempts to raise a laugh via what rhymes with ‘banker’). He has enlisted the help of Florence Spink (Kathryn Chambers), a pushy Essex-girl PR, who has advised him to start up a charity for the needy (always good for the image). They haven’t quite settled on the worthy cause, and every name they try out seems to invite a rude acronym (T.I.T.S., A.R.S.H.L., etc.—a joke best described as hamstrung and limping rather than ‘running’).

The charity is to be launched with an auction of items previously owned (or at least, once handled) by a range of celebrities. Listing the celebs (Bradley Walsh, Lorraine Kelly, etc.) alongside the times they have supposedly donated, raises some of the bigger laughs of the first act.

Living upstairs in the same exclusive apartment block is the world-renowned but elderly artist Sir Ommany John (Ray Sutton). The ancient Sir Ommany, whose work sells for hundreds of thousands (even millions), veers from an inability to recall his own age or recognise his latest wife to being an irrepressibly randy old goat, with horns very firmly aimed at Florence Spink. Can Florence persuade him to donate one of his creations, without paying too high a price in the bargain? For a little while, this dilemma has the makings of genuine farce...

Meanwhile, TV gameshow host, Matthew Board (Connor Simkins) is filming in the building. With Florence’s prompting, might Timothy be able to plug his charity venture on Matthew’s show? Perhaps even talk the cocky but needy narcissist into being a celebrity auctioneer? And will the plasterer (Ash Gorsi) ever arrive to repair the damaged wall in Upton-Fell’s apartment, and if he does, will Timothy’s daughter’s Finnish friend, Katia (Vikki Earle) be on hand to answer the door to him?

Act one concludes with the arrival (unseen by the others) of Tim’s vengeful, alcoholic ex-wife, Cressida (Judith Martindale), well-sozzled, and brandishing a large pair of scissors. Those of us who recall the fate of John Wayne Bobbitt head to our (reasonably priced) interval drinks in hope of more gripping and amusing fare to come.

The knowledgeable gent behind the bar is confident act two will be better (as I say, they’re generous folk at the Preston Playhouse). He argues, rightly, that a lot of the work of act one goes into introducing characters and setting up situations that will pay off, comically, in act two. With tonight’s show, this turns out to be sometimes true, but mostly not.

A key element of comic tension in farce is how, as the gap between reality and the desired illusion widens, the more extreme and ludicrous characters’ efforts to make the abnormal seem normal must become. The best aspects of Fawlty Towers often turned on this. It’s important enough for an entire sitcom to be aptly named Keeping Up Appearances. Cressida’s handiwork (which to avoid a ‘spoiler’ I won’t detail) offers great possibilities for comic tension of this kind (working to normalise the patently abnormal). Instead, we get a (barely plausible) throwaway visual gag to open act two. A pity.

To be fair, (as Mine Host predicted), there are more laughs in act two. There is even a pretty successful interlude involving two characters talking at cross purposes (a classic device in farce), when Katia is complaining about being pressured to tidy up and wait for the workmen to arrive but Florence thinks she’s relating how Timothy is exploiting her as an unwilling sex-worker.

The main weakness in All Above Board is structural. What does the central character (Timothy) want (a better image? too vague) and what is at stake (i.e. what will failure cost him? never clear)? The subplots (Matthew, Florence, Katia, Cressida, the plasterer) have little impact on or relevance to the main plot. The one element that shows real promise as a comic treasure (the desire for one of Sir Ommany’s pricey artworks and the 'price' that might have to be paid), is never central to the play, with the result that its resolution (clever in itself) lacks the necessary comic punch.

One or two decent jokes; one or two clever moments. Does this add up to a decent night at the theatre? On this occasion, just about; but only because the good folk of Preston are prepared to work so hard to make it so.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson