See How They Run
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Sitting on the Metro on the way home from Newcastle, I fell to wondering why so many farces seem dated and unfunny and yet some - and See How They Run is a shining example - seem fresh and newly minted, even though the situation (in this case wartime in a country vicarage) is now a piece of history.
I tried to discount the performances and direction (the director is Douglas Hodge, best known as an actor but quite clearly equally as good in this role) in my cogitations but found it very difficult, for in See How They Run they were impeccable, from the youngest (Natalie Grady as maid Ida in her first professional production) to the oldest (Benjamin Whitrow as the Bishop of Lax). The pace is spot-on and designer Tim Shortall's set is exactly right, a nice mixture of the middle-class and ecclesiastical with (a clever touch, this) piles of sandbags reaching the full height of the walls at the edges which would act as tormentors on larger stages.
The plot, with its twists, turns, confusions and mistaken identities, is typical of the genre: there are the numerous doors and the inevitable walk-in cupboard, much rushing around in underclothes, a stereotypical foreigner (in this case the escaped German prisoner of war), an equally stereotypical shrewish spinster, the token working class character (Sergeant Towers), and all the other ingredients which we expect from a farce, and yet See How They Run demands to be treated as a play in its own right and not as an example of the genre.
One of the reasons is the characters. I am not saying that there is great depth of characterisation here - Hamlet it is not! (although a comparison with The Comedy of Errors is not too fanciful) - but even the stereotypical characters (with the exception of the German: who in 1945 would write a play with a sympathetic Nazi?) have more to them than their function within the play. And this, perhaps, is where the farces which haven't worn so well fall down: if a character is no more than a function we can't really warm to them or care particularly what happens to them.
Which brings us back to the performances. Philip King gives his characters a little more depth and reality (within the bounds set, of course, by the conventions of farce) but it is up to the director and company to bring this out, and Hodge and his cast succeed admirably. The Newcastle audience had a great time, and although there were quite a number in the house who had lived through the war, the majority hadn't, so it wasn't a nostalgia trip which delighted them!
The tour continues to Sheffield and Malvern
Reviewer: Peter Lathan