Dry Rot

John Chapman
Ian Fricker
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Liza Goddard as Mrs Wagstaff
Neil Stacy as Colonel Wagstaff
Gemma Bissix as maid Beth

Billed as a “rip-roaring comedy”, perhaps it was a mistake to put this play on immediately after Driving Miss Daisy, the absorbing, moving, yet very funny story of an abrasive, opinionated, elderly retired teacher and the mutual respect which gradually developed between her and her chauffeur, beautifully and sympathetically written by her loving, but wittily observant grandson. The contrast is too great.

Here in Keith Myers's production, Chapman’s 1954 play is knockabout, dated comedy which mostly leaves me cold, although it did have its moments and, to be fair, the rest of the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. The style is similar to the old vaudeville shows with intentions telegraphed to the audience beforehand, which rather loses the element of surprise.

Two worthwhile performances are from Neil Stacy as Colonel Wagstaff and Liza Goddard as his wife who both play their roles straight, which is so much funnier than hamming it up.

They are the new owners of a country house hotel, an old building prone to dry rot but comprising the required numerous exits necessary for a farce, including a secret door in the oak panelling which they know nothing about but which their guests have discovered.

These guests are bookies who have hatched a get-rich-quick plan to substitute their decrepit old nag for the odds-on favourite in its next race. Somehow this horse has found itself somewhere behind the panel and the first (and very well executed) chaos comes when checking the walls for dry rot causes the secret door to fly open while the conspirators frantically try to keep it hidden.

Steven Blakeley plays Fred, the bookie's runner, in Norman Wisdom style—gormless and pathetic—the fall-guy between Flash Harry (Gareth Hale) and Alfred Tubbe (Andrew Paul). They need a jockey to ride their horse—and lose. No prizes for guessing what happens.

Mark Martin is the new secretary, John Danby, who hasn’t yet met his employer (mistaken identity to come), Alfred has to remove his braces for Fred to use as reins when learning to ride a horse by straddling the sofa (trousers round the ankles expected) and, even in the fifties, I find it hard to imagine a big, tough gun-toting policewoman (Sarah Whitlock) screaming in horror and running away at the sight of a man in his boxers. The reasoning behind her character being called Sergeant Fire I leave to your imagination.

Add to the mix a diminutive and excitable French jockey who speaks no English (nice line in rapid-fire French from Michael Keane), an accident-prone and gossipy maid (Gemma Bissix with a strange stance, but keeping her West Country accent well), include a little love interest between daughter Susan (Evelyn Adams) and secretary Danby, and between Fred and maid... and you have the whole thing in a nutshell—nuts being the operative word.

Farce is notoriously difficult to produce. It relies on split second timing and such high speed action that the audience has no time to dissect and rationalise the plot. Overall they did achieve this, and the show was a huge hit in the fifties—it should remain there.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor