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Plunder

Ben Travers
A Watermill Theatre, Newbury, production
Greenwich Theatre
(2007)

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Several times lately, among the interval chatter I've heard people - not critics but ordinary punters and middle-aged ones at that - saying something they had seen was very old fashioned. Of course, it is true, there are fashions in theatre but being a play written years ago doesn't make it old-fashioned. You never hear people saying that about Shakespeare or Sheridan - label something a classic and they approach it (wrongly, I think) in a different way. Personally, I don't think it is not really a matter of fashion but simply what audiences have become used to.

These people were still enjoying themselves - most people going for a night out do, that's their intention, they have spent good money. They are used to the naturalism of television and that is true of many performers too. The past work of the cast of Heather Davies's production of Plunder, which played at the Watermill last month before coming to the Greenwich Theatre, shows they are no newcomers to the stage, but they haven't quite got the measure of playing something as finely honed as an Aldwych Farce.

It is an old piece, of course, first staged in 1928 with a famously successful revival by the National Theatre at the Old Vic which transferred to the South Bank in 1976, and this is not a genre to easily get right. When BBC television presented a series of Travers's farces in the early 1970s (starring Richard Briers and Arthur Lowe), he rewrote them to focus on the plot complications and verbal confusions rather than the frantic physical comedy and split-second timing that typifies the stage versions. I couldn't help wondering whether this production might owe something to the television script for, despite the number of doors in Colin Falconer's elegant black and white set, the frantic, just-missing-each-other, exits and exits were not a feature and there was very little to replace the kind of eccentric personal business of Ralph Lynn which was such a characteristic of the original Aldwych productions.

Hugh Futcher's Buckley captures just that kind of zany indulgence in few moments of indulgent bunny-hop in a scene-change that segue into a scene, exchanging a complicit look with his dancing partner as he returns to staid butlerdom. Sarah Whitlock makes a stalwart housekeeper become mistress of the household as Mrs Hewlett, one of those large ladies that the Aldwych team (like the Marx Brothers) used as the butt of many of their jokes. She gets the level just about right and her performance would be lifted by more help from others, while James Bradshaw as her half-pint son, though making him the right kind of stupid (as opposed to silly) -ass, doesn't quite succeed in combining apparent physical awkwardness with the immaculate physical timing needed.

The key to the problem becomes most clear with the performance of the Wooster-like character D'Arcy Tuck. This is an upper-class silly-ass and Oscar Pearce plays him with flamboyance and great detail but, I felt, is consciously being funny. The key to playing almost everything in farce is surely that the characters take themselves very, very seriously. That is what could have turned the little ripples of laughter, like those I heard around me, into escalating delight.

Plunder, the story of society jewel thieves staging a heist in their own country-house home, has an extremely complicated plot which does go at a spanking pace. The pantomime scene, when the jewels are actually taken from the bedroom of their vast, snoring owner, needs more stylish playing that it gets here but the production comes into its own when the action moves to the more staid setting of Scotland Yard with John Sackville's Freddy Malone facing the interrogation of John Ashton's Detective Chief Inspector.

This production is a bit like the curate's egg - to use a suitably period expression - good in parts. Stylish in concept with a good sense of period, beautifully mounted and dressed, it is a pleasant entertainment but at the moment not firing on all cylinders. It's already played for a month so could it be that the transfer to a new venue needs more time to play in? With a bit of tweaking this could perhaps have be really good and it is a pity that the director seems not to have realised where it is going wrong.

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Reviewer: Howard Loxton