Mr Courtney's Brood

James Hadfield-Hyde
Pulse Manchester for Manchester Shakespeare Company
Three Minute Theatre, Manchester

This play is a very vigorous farce in a style which tends toward panto. It concerns the landed gentry and the curious goings on as the feuding four children of the patriarch Alfred Courtney squabble over who is going to inherit what after he dies. Given that he is about to be 90, this event, at least for three of them, cannot come soon enough.

Robert the eldest is the bluff northerner who runs the family steelworks; next is the drunkard Edward, a failed barrister who never wins a case, and then comes fading socialite and avaricious daughter Charlotte. This trio, rather like the Ugly Sisters and Stepmother, are pitted against the caring young gay brother, Francis, who can be seen as a kind of Cinderella figure.

Add to this the faithful family retainer Symes, who is a cross between Leonard Sach’s toastmaster for verbosity and PG Wodehouse’s immortal Jeeves for his unflappability and dextrous problem solving.

It’s been written by someone who is in a good position to lampoon the upper classes as James Hadfield-Hyde is the Lord of Alderley in the county of Cheshire. He is described on his own web site as a “colourful and charming English eccentric“.

This may go some way to explaining why, in the midst of this family farce, there are so many non-PC jokes. These range from the heavily homophobic taunts of the gay Francis through references to Bongo Bongo Land, most methane coming from Poland and a comment about black people in Kenya where the Alfred character spent some time when younger. It’s not always clear enough whether or not as the audience we are supposed to see invisible inverted commas appended to these.

The plot involves the various impoverished siblings trying to get more dosh from their ailing father and then being tricked into attending his much heralded 90th birthday party. Here events take a darker turn, although the comedy is never entirely discarded as these themes are also mercilessly sent up.

The playing style is very broad, which is mostly successful and consistent with the tone of the material. There are some songs which have clever and witty lyrics and are melodic and well sung, so the play is constantly engaging and the pace doesn’t particularly flag. Though the first half feels the right length at 50 minutes, the audience did seem unsure that it had concluded and the second half is distinctly shorter, which felt a bit uneven. This production was reviewed during the run and not on the press night.

Tony Charnock as Robert Courtney gives a solid performance as the eldest son who is a blunt northerner. He is a bit of a straight man character but is essential to the unfolding of the plot and its various reversals. Peter Slater as Edward makes the most of the comedy business in which he is involved, this reviewer’s favourites being the way that, as the play develops, his outrageously awful black hanging judge’s wig gets more and more distressed. The other great moment is when he is confounded by the woman colleague with whom he is drunkenly canoodling into telling his brother that he is up to his “eye boobs“.

Sophie Ann Ellicott as Charlotte presents us with a great performance of a spoilt rich and very haughty woman teetering on the brink of middle age and grasping onto her youth with her fingernails. Sophie has a lovely singing voice and her solo about not getting married for love is beautifully done and very funny as she sends up the pseudo-ballet moves she is dancing. The audience were equally delighted with her cameos as foreign receptionist and floozy woman.

Stephen Costello gives a bravura performance as the much put-upon youngest and gay son Francis. His solo song about being gay is very in-yer-face with its frank and crude self descriptions, but the ironic song about his love for his father despite his maltreatment is an unexpected delight. His comic energy never falters and he has some wonderful coups de theatre utilising his fine comic timing, which it would be curmudgeonly to reveal.

Noel Wilson gives a magisterial performance of great assurance as the butler Symes. He fully relishes the pomposity and verbosity of the role and commands the attention of the characters on stage as well as the audience when he addresses us at the start and requires us to stand at the end for the National Anthem. Though he has the withering look off to a tee, he does in time reveal that Symes has a fully beating heart under his traditional butler’s uniform.

Aiden J Harvey as the elderly Alfred and also a later cameo as a solicitor has such stage presence he all but dazzles. He is great to watch and always engaging as befits such an old-school performer with a huge reservoir of performing experience. He offered us a lovely ad lib to cover a fluffed song entrance where he blamed it on his character’s age, which got a great laugh. This reviewer regularly clamours to encourage a company to engage Mr Harvey as one of Beckett’s tramps where he would be sublime.

The staging is effectively realised and the cast work well as an ensemble whether witnessing others’ star turns or performing the one patter number from the three elder siblings. What would improve the piece would be clearer indications to the audience that these characters’ outlandish and outdated prejudices are not to be taken seriously in any way. Perhaps it would better to eschew these altogether as they are quite jarring and rather tiresome.

The production fits very well with the laudable 3MT policy of experimentation and the company is to be applauded most heartily for showing us the work at this stage of its development. John Topliff’s songs and Gina T Frost’s direction of the material is as always first class.

Reviewer: Andrew Edwards

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