Doctor in the House

Ted Willis from the novel by Richard Gordon
Grand Theatre, Blackpool

Doctor in the House Credit: Liza Marie Dawson
Doctor in the House Credit: Liza Marie Dawson

There’s been a Doctor in the House as long as there’s been a Queen Elizabeth in Buck House...

Which is presumably why someone thought it a good idea to resurrect the former, in the same year we’re celebrating the latter.

A repeat prescription? Sixty years ago it would have filled this venue for a summer season lasting from May to November, particularly at a time when audiences craved gently-subversive, anti-Establishment humour.

Richard Gordon’s debut doctor novel spawned a stage play, a film, a TV series, and something of a worldwide franchise, which will have left this real-life doctor as one of those not having to worry about his pension provision.

It was a good-natured body of work that gave a lot of stars a medicinal shot in the arm of their careers, all the way from Dirk Bogarde to Martin Shaw.

In this revival it’s described as “the classic British comedy”. The only trouble is sorting out—from which particular period?

Instead of remaining faithful to its origins it pretty well takes off on a tour of the last 60 years of comedy, taking in Carry On capers, Whitehall farce, Joe Orton’s subsequent subversion of the style, even coarsened stand-up... you name it.

Putting a skilled comedian like Joe Pasquale centre stage pretty well establishes from the outset that here is a reconstructed production.

He even warms up the house with a front-of-curtain overture, but you have to feel that his subsequent and frequent audience asides are less a Brechtian device to break through the fourth wall than a desperate attempt to breathe some comic life into what becomes a Patient in the House.

With that high-pitched Essex delivery—aided here by being the one member of the cast miked up—he’s always sounded like he’s on laughing gas anyway but when he leaves the stage it leaves something of a vacuum.

Co-star Robert Powell puts four series of Holby City experience into the role of pompous surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt, and manages to make him much less overbearing than James Robertson Justice of blessed memory.

A cast of largely well-known TV faces support it all, to varying degrees of ability, but none of them could be accused of underplaying performances that are over-written in the first place.

A trouper like Gay Soper stands out in the tiny cameo of a battleaxe matron, but it is a measure of this production that you end up with more empathy for her than anyone else.

One sure sign of the production’s period ‘feel’ is its stereotypical portrayal of French or Australian characters; another is its totally bewildering comedy play within a play. A second act scene could have been taken straight from TV’s Embarrassing Bodies—and should have been returned, unopened.

Reviewer: David Upton