The Underpants

Carl Sternheim, adaptation by Steve Martin
Chancy Productions
Old Red Lion
(2006)

Question: Is farce out of date?

Answering a question with a question: Is laughter?

Imagine if you will Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century. It's the Kaiser's Parade, but all eyes are not on the king, they are on Louise Maske, the neglected wife of Theo Maske. Her kickers have fallen to her ankles and even though she is publicly exposed, it is Theo who suffers the most humiliation. Within seconds of this freak occurrence Louise and her underpants have become renowned. So popular in fact that the room they have for rent in their apartment suddenly has many enquires, all of which are from lusty suitors waiting eager to get into those infamous underpants.

Once you accept the genre without prejudice, it's easy to fall into the absurd world of The Underpants (Die Hose) written by the twentieth century German dramatist Carl Sternheim. However, let's not give Sternheim all the credit: after all, this UK and European premier production is made accessible by the actor and writer Steve Martin, who has successfully adapted this old classic into a contemporary gem.

The Underpants is full of sexual puns, improbable situations (such as the Kiser's request to rent the spare room) and archetypes such as the bullying bureaucrat Theo Maske (Owen Brenman), his dreamy innocent wife Louise (Dolly Wells), the luscious busybody Gertrude Deuter (Erika Poole), the superficial poet Frank Versati (Michael Jayes), and the self proclaimed "prophylactic" barber Benjamin Cohen (Ian Angus Wilkie). The Underpants, though a complete spoof, has many great one liners such as "Jealousy gives me [Cohen] the right to be a fool" that highlight some universal truths about desire, sexual politics and the flippancy of love.

If the bizarre plot doesn't make you laugh, Erika Poole's perfect timing and elated performance will. Poole was able to balance comedy while still exerting the most sexual chemistry. Farce depends on delivery and send up, which is why I was a little disappointed with Dolly Wells' subtle performance. Owen Brenman sustained his energy thoughout the play as did Michael Jayes, while Ian Angus Wilkie played the jealous rival convincingly.

I read somewhere that good directing is invisible and in Richard Braine's production, this is defiantly the case. On the whole, the production was both enjoyable and professionally produced. Amanda Oppe and her team seem to have the recipe for success down to a T, with both retail and corporate support from the likes of Aphrodisia Lingerie and the Goethe-Institute London.

The play feels that it comes to a premature ending and I was left wanting more from the story; however it is better to leave your audience wanting more then to feel like they have been over-fed.

Running until 18th November

Lennie Varvarides