See How They Run
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal
Philip King’s wartime hit, a cornerstone of the well-made English farce tradition, might seem a strange choice for a main stage revival when Orton, Bennett and Frayn have long since prodded the form into newly insane developments. But, given a likeable cast and a clear rendering by Juliet Forster’s capable direction, the show manages to bring much fun to a rainy autumn season.
Opening in sub-Wildean style with tea, muffins and a voluminous matron (Ashley Christmas’s Miss Skillon), the play at first sets alarm bells ringing with the variety of caricatured postures (and accents) portrayed. The set-up, however, is often the most difficult phase of a farce, and once past these awkward first moments, and settled into the firmly established period setting, the audience can relax into the bafflements and convolutions of the plot.
Lucy Phelps, as the maid Ida, also seems overly mannered at first, with an archly extreme performance and absurdly-vowelled delivery. Yet she reveals herself as the play progresses to be a versatile, compelling, and oddly convincing performer. Her almost otherworldly physicality is in fact captivating as she contorts herself seemingly effortlessly in ways which look technically impossible. Most importantly, she has a firm grasp of the crucial shifts in power balance, such as when she becomes the inquisitor to Reverend Toop’s (Mark Denham’s) perplexed, unwilling witness.
This is not to single Phelps out: the cast as a whole is strong, and indeed one of the main factors in ensuring the audience remain onside and engaged throughout the shenanigans. Faye Winter as Penelope Toop, a retired actress turned vicar’s wife, brings the right degree of glamour and flightiness, while retaining a down-to-earth nature which ensures we side with her as she tries to unravel the increasingly complex threads of the plot. Matthew Rixon is commanding and endearingly bemused as her uncle, the Bishop of Lax—only one of several outsiders who turns up inopportunely on a night of confusions. Philip Mansfield as an(other) ineffectual vicar is handwringingly spot-on, an apology personified.
Mark Denham as Reverend Toop (the vicar of the house) is strong on etiquette and another endearing stage presence, but he does get lumbered with several of the less well-motivated moves. In this way there are a couple of totemic moments of chaos—lines of clergymen streaming through the house in underwear or otherwise borrowed garments—which don’t quite feel justified, except in the joyous imagery they bring. The best productions would ensure that there was never a moment at which it felt such a move was arbitrary or simply for the fun of it—they should at all times spring from the characters’ evident immediate situations. Here, occasionally, people hide in cupboards just because that’s what people in farces do.
So what we find ourselves amused by, at times, is the author’s ingenuity, rather than (as in the best productions) that of the characters. It’s occasionally a question of waiting to see what King comes up with next, rather than how Toop or his wife manoeuvre their way round the situation.
Let this not detract, however, from the fact that this is a polished version of an amusing script, with likeable and committed performances throughout the cast. Michael Lambourne is great as the terrified but determined German soldier adding to the madness, as is Terry Burns as the jobsworth sergeant tasked with finding him.
The central partnerships are the heart of the play, though, and Oliver Lavery as Clive is truly magnetic. From suave, charming squaddie to slightly tiddly protagonist, he physically and vocally runs the gamut, with excellent comic timing. He is also effortlessly athletic, crumbling superbly while covering his face with a nearby cushion as the risks of discovery multiply.
The play’s imagery and design (accomplished work by Barney George) let you know exactly what kind of an evening you’re in for. It is nostalgic, high-spirited fun: a capable rendition of a classic, unreconstructed farce, recommendable on the strength of its performances and direction.
Reviewer: Mark Smith