John Maddison Morton, William E Suter and Joseph Stirling Coyne
European Arts Company
Wilton’s Music Hall
This programme of four short mid-nineteenth century plays, all written between 1847 and 1860, finds an appropriate setting in Grace’s Alley for these are pieces more in the tradition of nineteenth-century burlesque or French vaudeville than later styles of farce.
The best known of them is Box and Cox by John Madison Morton (probably largely in its Arthur Sullivan operatic adaptation and because it added n expression to the language). The third play of the evening A Most Unwarranted Intrusion is also his. These are just two from an output of 91 farces. The second on the bill is William E Suter’s Wanted, A Young Lady (its author better known for his dramatisation of Lady Audley’s Secret) and the evening ends with Duel in the Dark by Joseph Stirling Coyne, another prolific playwright with 91 plays including 27 farces.
With just three actors playing all the roles and the scenery a clever rearranging of a set of colourful screens, director Jonathan Kemp delivers a sprightly production. The style is set by Asta Parry’s mob-capped maid who fussily enters and makes the final touches to the set and then uncovers a placard like those used in variety theatre that announces the first play. In it she then becomes Mrs Bouncer, proprietor of a lodging house who, unknown to her tenants, has let the same room to two men: Mr Box (Richard Latham), a printer who works at night on a newspaper and sleeps by day, and hatter Mr Cox (John O’Connor), who does the opposite.
Mrs Bouncer’s double dealing is discovered, but that is only the beginning of a set of co-incidences involving a wealthy female swimming machine operator they both, it seems, have got engaged to marry. Neither fit-up setting nor the playing give this the reality in which farcical excesses need to be grounded. Perhaps appropriately for the material, they adopt the more self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek playing of a comic sketch to get their laughs but this never takes off in the way that shows why it stayed popular for so long.
Wanted a Young Lady has Richard Latham as a newly-engaged, comic, elderly servant faced with new arrivals: John O’Connor’s Frank is the man’s employers’ grandson and Adelaide (Asta Parry) a new companion for his mistress. It is soon an untamed confusion of impostors and cross dressing.
A Most Unwarranted Intrusion, which begins with Richard Lathan’s Snoozle having rescued an intruder (John O’Connor) from an attempted suicide by drowning in his fishpond, is a wildly improbable escalation that would not have been out of place among the absurdist drama of the mid-twentieth century (and it did indeed form part of a National Theatre triple bill in 1967).
Duel in the Dark involves more cross-dressing and impersonation but seems a more carefully plotted piece. It has Asta Parry as a wife catching out her would-be unfaithful husband and Latham as her maid Betsy. O’Connor, an actor with a nice line in ad-libs, is the caddish husband Gregory. This gets a rather more stylish staging and that perhaps contributes to why it seems a more polished piece. Asta Parry seizes her opportunities as spectacled Countess, pistol-wielding, moustachioed nephew and wily but charming wife to ensure this play goes off with a bang.
Four Farces can also be seen at Chipping Norton theatre (2 July) and Greenwich Theatre (4-5 July).
Reviewer: Howard Loxton