See How They Run

Philip King
Original Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

See How They Run production photo

See How They Run is presented in repertory with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (set in the India of 1947) and the company’s Artistic Director, Alastair Whatley, believes that there are strong parallels between the two, not immediately obvious although it is true that both countries were in a state of change with neither knowing quite what lay in the future. Both involve mistaken identity, disguises and one character who is brought down from their high horse with a bump. The idea that ‘the use of comedy as a foil to probe much darker themes’ is a suggestion worth exploring.

This play, written in 1942, opened in the West End in January 1945 playing to capacity audiences and, in King’s words, ‘went like a bomb’ - almost literally as three doodlebugs dropped during the first performance. The fact that it’s playing in theatres everywhere over sixty five years later shows its timeless quality and that a good farcical comedy is an effective antidote to stress and guaranteed to lift the spirits with everyone leaving the theatre smiling.

The plot is far too convoluted to describe, but it involves several vicars (some real, some disguised), an escaped and armed German prisoner, a disapproving spinster, a cheeky maid, and an actress and a bishop - say no more! The look of bewilderment on the faces of the assembled company when the happenings of the day are explained to them is a joy to behold.

Lucy Speed is the self-righteous Miss Skillon, a disapproving spinster confronting vicar Reverend Lionel Toop (Alastair Whatley) with her grievance. His wife and former actress Penelope (Siobhan O’kelly) has had the effrontery to decorate the altar for Harvest Festival without consulting her, and what’s more she has been seen wearing trousers! Whatley is conciliatory and polite as befits a vicar, but spends most of the play in his underwear, having lost his clothes to the German POW (a threatening Rhys King). Rachel Donovan brilliantly steals every scene as the maid Ida, her frantic efforts to convey to Penelope, by expressions and gestures, that there are two people in the cupboard had the audience in fits of laughter, giving her a well-deserved spontaneous round of applause.

Arthur Bostrom is initially correct and formal as the Bishop of Lax, complicating affairs by arriving earlier than expected, David Partridge is fun as Lance-Corporal Clive Winton, Penelope’s friend from acting days, and Sebastian Abineri is gruff and authorative as Sergeant Towers, trying to sort out the vicars.

Surprisingly every character is believable, and extremely well-conveyed by this excellent troupe of actors with the chaotic lunacy building up in speed and complications, until almost the whole company are frantically chasing each other in a never-ending circle, casually leaping over the body on the floor - even when it isn’t there.

Act Two brings in yet another vicar - and a dog, a cute West Highland terrier who has decided that an actor’s job is not for him and leaps off the stage to investigate the audience. The attention he gets could have overshadowed (but happily didn’t) Leo Atkin’s delightfully understated comic performance as the timid Reverend Arthur Humphrey confused by the goings on around him and trying to psych himself up among the lunacy with “Be brave, Humphrey, be brave”.

I have seen many farces where the humour is laboured and actions repeated in case we didn’t get the point the first time, not so here under Chris Harper’s direction. See How They Run is performed with panache, often at breakneck speed, and with some of the neatest timing I’ve seen, and this company keep the audience involved and laughing from start to finish with plenty of surprises along the way, the whole played out on Victoria Spearing’s comprehensive and multiple doored set. Fast and furious fun all the way, catch it (or them) if you can.

"See How They Run" tours to Dunstable, Basingstoke, Bury St Edmunds, Worthing, Buxton and Berwick.

Robin Strap reviewed this production at Basingstoke

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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