The Duck House

Dan Paterson and Colin Swash
Vaudeville Theatre

Diana Vickers and Ben Miller
Nancy Carroll and Ben Miller
Debbie Chazen and James Musgrave

The Duck House has clearly been written to attract lovers of lightweight TV sitcoms. Its co-authors have a great track record as gag writers and producers of broadcast comedy, while starring is TV favourite Ben Miller.

In the comfortable family home of Robert Houston MP, the first act sets off seemingly in search of the record for largest number of jokes fitted into a single play. While many are old, some tap into the contemporary political and social zeitgeist, including references to MP's excesses, the Deputy Prime Minister and, more anachronistically but topically, everybody's favourite (drug-taking) TV cook.

The plot, such as it is, centres on the unscrupulously duplicitous Houston a year ahead of the last election, as he is about to desert the Labour benches to become a high level Tory minister.

It just so happens that the timing coincides with the spate of revelations about dubious expense claims, our man apparently matching every single claim by his 649 colleagues.

The problem here is that the factual lines about moats, hanging baskets and the eponymous duck house are often considerably funnier than those invented by the scriptwriters to amuse theatregoers.

For almost the whole of the first half, Houston, Nancy Carroll as his devoted wife but hopeless non-secretary Felicity and James Musgrave playing lazy, expletive-bound son Seb desperately try to persuade Simon Shepherd as the new party's pit-bull, Sir Norman Cavendish that everything is above board.

This requires the pacing of farce and there are undoubtedly funny moments, many emanating from the vengeful Russian cleaner Ludmilla, Debbie Chazen acting calmly, while all around are losing their heads (and trousers).

If the first half stretches the credibility, after the interval, we reach the realm of the unbelievable, as kinky sex rears its ugly head.

Now, in Houston's nominal second home, the writers go overboard. The Kensington flat looks like a goth squat and, coincidentally, all of the characters end up there together, mutually blackmailing for England (and Russia).

This involves reality TV star Diana Vickers playing a newly discovered prospective daughter-in-law cum sex worker (only this once - honest), while the Tory grandee lives down to the most cynically predictable of party clichés that even hard-line left-wingers might find distasteful even addressed to the kind of politician they love to revile.

The comedy is divided between satire and farce but throughout the acting under Terry Johnson's direction is hysterical, Ben Miller almost reaching the excesses of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, while trying to impress his new boss.

For those that love simplistic political sitcoms or coarse sex farces, and many do, either half of this 2¼ hours could prove to be irresistibly funny. Anyone that prefers even a modicum of sophistication in their West End fare would be well advised to cross this one off their Christmas list.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher