Rookery Nook

Ben Travers
Oxford Stage Company
Salisbury Playhouse and touring
(2005)

Rookery Nook? Ah yes. We sigh nostalgically. For surely there can’t be a village hall in the whole country that hasn’t echoed to the sound of its enjoyable silliness.

First produced at the Aldwych theatre in 1926, Rookery Nook isn’t just farce. It’s the essence of farce. All the elements are there – the misunderstandings, unintentional double entendres followed by exaggerated embarrassment, dialogue and movements taken at breakneck speed and, of course, the essential states of undress.

Every character is a stereotype, from the bumbling red-faced admiral and parade-ground and screeching German stepfather (both played enthusiastically by John Dougall) to the saw-dispensing daily woman – with hat, apron and obligatory Devonshire accent... Among all the childish antics she really is the only grown-up character there.

The story is of Gerald, married only six weeks, having to stay overnight in the same house as a silk pyjama-clad young woman, previously unknown to him. Once we accept that absurdity, subsequent events follow a predictable course. In this production Jane Murphy is the sweetly vulnerable cause of the trouble, while Benjamin Davies plays her reluctant fellow lodger with convincing schoolboy gaucheness. Gerald’s neurotic and harassed brother-in-law Harold (Richard Henders), carrying around a straw hat whose only function is to be chewed in moments of stress, is straight out of a McGill seaside postcard. His domineering wife Gertrude (Fiona Battisby) is appropriately terrifying.

The set, in art deco style, vibrant red for the most part with a sweeping double staircase and huge semi-circular window dominating the scene, only serves to enhance the frenetic nature of the action.

It’s difficult to imagine how this excellent production could possibly be bettered. You feel that Ben Travers would have been completely enchanted by its charm and frothiness.

Yet perhaps the fact that we apparently need a guide to the genre included in the programme – -including T for Trousers, E for Exits, D for doors (there were eleven of them in this production) means that it’s time to move on. Once you’ve seen Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, traditional Ben Travers farce doesn’t have quite the same appeal.

So we come to the main puzzle about this production. Why did director Dominic Dromgoole choose to do it?

As Willie Mannering, who plays Gerald’s marginally more sophisticated cousin Clive, explained, ‘He likes a challenge.’

Well, he’ll certainly get that at his next posting - replacing the charismatic Mark Rylance as Artistic Director at the Globe.

We look forward with much interest.

Anne Hill replaces Kevin Catchpole during his illness

Reviewer: Anne Hill