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Flat Out

Jennifer Selway
Ovation
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
to

In a programme note, dramatist Jennifer Selway comments on the difficulty of creating traditional farce at a time when situations and relationships that once had to be hidden are now flaunted openly and technology and mobile phones have made it much easier to pass on information, but that hasn’t stopped her. The result is a very traditional piece that is still up to date and that keeps an audience chuckling and sometimes laughing out loudly as they recognize, if not themselves, then people and situations very like ones they know.

It ticks some stereotypical boxes. The characters are almost all bourgeoisie, there is a set with multiple doors and a window that provides extra ingress and exit. There are secrets that are in danger of exposure and, though sexual attitudes are now much more tolerant, it is still rather embarrassing for a daughter to discover her dad with his mistress. The root of the plot is in property which couldn’t be more modern, though also fits a play by Pinero who might well have set a scene in just such an apartment as this one in a mansion flat in London’s South Kensington.

Though still very fashionable, the place is run down. There is what looks like a leak in the ceiling and there’s scaffolding outside, for the property company that owns the building is doing it up. They want tenants out to charge vastly higher rates when refurbished, but residents have rights and are due for equivalent rehousing or a substantial pay-off in compensation for surrendering their tenancies. Meanwhile, the company is on the lookout for anyone who might have broken their tenancy agreement and could therefore have their lease cancelled without compensation.

There is sex involved (of course), though, in a twist away from tradition, the couple borrowing the flat for a lunchtime tryst aren't hiding the fact that they are married but the opposite, while another pair is a variation on those couples who get the keys from the agent to inspect a flat rather than pay for an hotel room.

And of course there is that farcical staple, something you know wouldn’t really be possible but pretend you could get away with. In this case, a piece of instant cross-dressing that allows a man to pass as his twin sister (and, even more impossible to believe, that the dapper suit an elegant woman puts on is the huge one he took off or the dress that fits him would have been worn by her).

All is ready for an elegant lady to strip down to some exotic underwear and we’re off. Angela (Jennifer Matter) has borrowed the flat from her friend Claire Carmichael (Cathy Walker) to meet up with QC Giles (Richard Earl) who may be calm in court but this lunchtime is hyped up. The Carmichaels don’t actually live there; they have a big place in the country and let this flat to pay off their mortgage. Though Claire doesn’t know it, husband Hugh (Stuart Simons, with a blonde wig that matches his stature) has just lost his job in the City so they now desperately need cash.

The Gibsons live in the flat downstairs. Wife Trudy moved in years ago, it’s in her name, but now Phil (Tom Pepper) arrives back from Florida without her. Then there is about-to-move-in tenant Sandrine (Grace McInery), who has to pretend to be Claire to callers who don’t know the set-up, and a snooper for the property company (Jake Mitchell), who has his own ideas about property plutocrats. At first, miraculously (or with the help of the scaffolding outside), they don’t bump into the wrong people but…

It is all there for a fun evening complete with slamming doors and risqué moments, which may be played a little too self-consciously but the audience found them funny. It has a lively cast who push the pace and enjoy it as much as the audience. I haven’t even mentioned the mice, the crocodile or the illegal Ukrainian cleaner (Hollie Taylor) who brings the rat poison: will he eat it or won’t he? I’ve already given too much away by saying he!

Reviewer: Howard Loxton