Canoeing for Beginners

Mike Yeaman
Royal Court Liverpool
Royal Court Liverpool

Canoeing for Beginners

The story of John Darwin, aka "The Canoe Man", certainly has all the elements of farce in its DNA: man fakes death (in a canoe) and, along with his wife, this otherwise ordinary couple proceed to dupe not only the authorities, police and media but their own children into the bargain.

Throw in bogus insurance claims, suspicious minds and trips to Panama and you have ready-made farce. I mean, you couldn’t make this up.

It’s well over ten years since Mr Darwin and his wife Anne hatched an audacious plan to swindle their insurers out of several hundred thousand pounds. It was a story that captured the imagination and continues to do so. The Royal Court’s production follows a BBC film of 2010 starring Bernard Hill and Saskia Reeves.

And so this strange-but-true story has reached the stage in the shape of Mike Yeaman’s Canoeing for Beginners. Thus we are all set for an evening of high farce. The original south coast setting is transposed to Crosby Marina and Royal Court regulars will be comforted to know that the usual references to The Pier Head, Bootle and The Grafton are all present and correct.

The play opens in darkness with various radio reports announcing the disappearance at sea of Frank Tyler (John McArdle). Opening the story at this juncture is a curious decision. It means the audience has no insight into the Tylers and their motivation in hatching this plot. It also means that we are deprived a glimpse into the mind of Mr Tyler for poor old McArdle spends the entire play shuffling from stage left to stage right in his Y-fronts while delivering the odd expletive here and there. What a waste. The money must have been good.

Undoubtedly, the play is more successful before the interval. The focus here is all about Mrs Tyler’s (Pauline Fleming) attempts to cope with the deception she and hubby have created. This involves a tissue of lies and plenty of comic interaction with gobby, WAG wannabe daughter, Carol (Angela Simms) and salt-of-the-earth son, Keith (Michael Ledwich) who, to my mind at least, will forever be a randy polar bear—my abiding memory of Scouse of the Antarctic. Brrrr.

A drunken homecoming, as Keith and Watts—a nosey neighbourhood liaison officer—crash on couch and floor respectively, is one of the highlights of a fairly brisk first act. Canoeing for Beginners though is a game of two halves. After the interval the scene shifts to Fidel Castro country. Unfortunately it proves to be a step too far for this production.

It’s much less certain of itself in the exotic setting of Cuba. The action starts to get frenetic. The cast start to get shouty, they also get sweary. They also spend a lot of time hiding behind curtains and beds. A comic Cuban with funny moustache arrives. John McArdle shuffles around in Harold Steptoe mode. Mrs Tyler shouts. Keith Tyler shouts, Carol Tyler screeches. And to cap it all there's even a surprise (and not altogether unwelcome) guest appearance from Ms Fleming's nipples.

Oh for some light and shade. As a piece of drama, it starts to seriously creak and that’s not just as a result of the Caribbean hurricane currently shaking the hotel to its foundations.

So, how then do you end a play like Canoeing for Beginners? With a murder of course. But surely a dead body in a hotel room should have signalled the start of even more farce, not the end of it. Dead bodies on stage might well have signalled the end of many plays from that famous Stratfordian scribe, but this is hardly Shakespeare.

Will the Tylers finally get their grubby hands on the cash? Will they get away from Cuba? And what about that dead body in their bedroom? One can’t help but feel that Mr Yeaman has missed a very large trick here i.e. all the really interesting bits.

Had the writer had enough of his play? With an ending as precipitous as this, it certainly feels that way. We’re all left dangling in Cuba. This production really needed to bring the audience into the story a whole lot earlier and take us away a whole lot later. Instead we get a very elongated middle with virtually no beginning or end to speak of.

It’s a shame because Canoeing for Beginners certainly has all the ingredients of classic farce. It’s just that somewhere along the line the recipe got a bit lost.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick