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Philip King
Reduced Height Theatre Company
Opera House, Manchester

Jon Key as the Bishop of Lax, Warwick Davis as Reverend Toop, Phil Holden as Clive Winton, Raymond Griffiths as The Intruder and Peter Bonner as Sergeant Towers Credit: Paul Clapp
Francesca Mills as Ida, Francesca Papagno as Miss Skillon and Rachel Denning as Penelope Toop Credit: Paul Clapp
Warwick Davis as Reverend Lionel Toop Credit: Paul Clapp

This is the inaugural production of Warwick Davis's new Reduced Height Theatre Company, which features only actors of smaller stature, in an effort to give opportunities for himself and others of similar height to play roles not usually available to actors under five foot.

No tall order in itself, but not helped by a curious choice of opening play. First performed exactly 70 years ago, Philip King's best-known work has all of the clichés of the farce: vicars, people in their underwear (though only males, unusually), tea, alcohol, a vicar's wife who used to be an actress, lots of running in and out of doors, a cheeky maid, an easily-shocked, middle-aged parishioner, mistaken identities... and so on.

The plot doesn't make a great deal of sense, but there's an old actor friend of the Vicar's wife who has to change into one of the Vicar's suits so he isn't caught in forbidden territory in his army uniform, an escaped German POW who also ends up in a vicar's uniform, a strait-laced woman from the village who ends up drunk—and, of course, the Bishop is coming to stay.

It is rather like stepping back in time, not just with the play but with the style of the acting. Directed by pantomime writer and dame Eric Potts, most of the dialogue is delivered at top volume directly at the audience rather than to other characters on stage.

A lot of the characters are played with precision and enthusiasm but rather mechanically, as though they have been drilled down to the last gesture and intonation. There is little sign that they are listening to one another, other than to identify their next cue.

There are some exceptions, with superb performances especially from Rachel Denning as the Vicar's wife, Penelope Toop, and Phil Holden as her old actor friend Lance-Corporal Clive Winton. Davis himself is very good as the Vicar, Reverend Lionel Toop, although it isn't an especially large role.

Francesca Mills as Ida the maid is one of those well-drilled actors, but she has the charm, the cheek and the energy to pull it off, and so really gets the audience on her side.

The fact that the average height of the actors is 4 foot 2—Davis is by far the shortest—is not a feature of the production or the comedy and is quickly forgotten, aided by Barney George's reduced-scale drawing room set.

It's fun in parts, has a good pace to it and contains some notable performances, but I look forward to seeing what this promising company with an admirable philosophy behind it will do in the future with better material to work from.

Reviewer: David Chadderton