Writer: John Maddison Morton
Director: Henry Bell
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
The Public Reviews Rating:
Farces have long been something of a staple of the Orange Tree’s programming, resulting in some of the theatre’s most popular and crowd-pleasing productions. Over the years, the theatre has presented work by Feydeau, Hannequin and Verber, and, last year, Reggie Oliver’s enjoyable adaptation of Hennequin and Delacour’s Le Procés Vauradieux, translated by Oliver as Once Bitten. For only the second time, however, the theatre has turned its attention to the work of a British farceur, in this case John Maddison Morton, the Victorian writer best known for his 1847 play Box and Cox, which was turned into an operetta by Arthur Sullivan. Editor Colin Chambers and director Henry Bell have adapted three short plays by Morton into one package, as Three Farces. The result is a most enjoyable evening that benefits from the wonderfully inclusive intimacy of the Orange Tree’s space.
Attractively designed by Sam Dowson and fetchingly costumed by Katy Mills, Bell’s production sweeps the audience up in cheerful bonhomie from its opening moments, in which Daniel Cheyne arrives on stage (complete with ukulele) to welcome us to this “veritable smorgasbord of farcical frolickings” and to introduce us to the other actors – Clive Francis, Stuart Fox, Edward Bennett, Jennifer Higham, David Oakes and Natalie Ogle – each of whom comes with their own epithet. Cheyne serves as “Master of Ceremonies” throughout the night, singing an introductory scene-setting ditty before each of the plays, and bantering with the audience during the two intervals. Proceedings kick off with “Slasher and Crasher,” the most anarchic (and also the funniest) of the three comedies. It’s a satire on duelling, with Francis as a patriarch concerned about the cowardice of the eponymous fellows (Oakes and Fox), who are suitors to his niece Rosa (Higham) and sister Dinah (Ogle). The madcap shenanigans culminate in a truly spectacular fight scene between Fox and Oakes, and there’s also a hilarious performance from Bennett as Lt. Brown, another potential suitor for Rosa.
It’s followed by “A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion,” an effective two-hander for Francis and Bennett in which a North London husband’s quiet day alone is interrupted by the appearance of a strange young man who’s trying to commit suicide in his garden. Underpinned by a hint of menace, the piece suggests the “home invasion” thriller as skewed by The Two Ronnies, and ends with a very neat, rather Brechtian flourish; Francis and Bennett are a dream team here. The final play, “Grimshaw, Bagshaw and Bradshaw,” also pivots around a home invasion, as Mr. Grimshaw (Fox) finds his room appropriated by a host of characters on the run. With its mistaken identity plot, disappearances into cupboards, and romantic confusions, this feels like the most conventional of the three pieces, but it’s consistently amusing nonetheless and played with infectious enthusiasm by the actors.
The star of the evening is undoubtedly Mr. Francis, who morphs brilliantly from fussy patriarch to befuddled bourgeois and finally Cockney-sheriffs-officer-cum-bovver-boy across the three plays. But all of the actors here get a moment to shine. The tone of Morton’s writing is less caustic and more generous-spirited than that of some of his French counterparts, and, mercifully, none of the plays resorts to funny-foreigner stereotypes or characters with speech impediments in order to draw laughs, opting instead for some marvellously surreal non-sequiturs. (The best involves a reference to a cotton umbrella.) Bell’s fluid, well-paced production avoids the trap of becoming too frenetic or strained, even as it embraces the self-conscious artifice and theatricality of the plays, and their glorious silliness. This is a thoroughly charming and enjoyable evening to convert even the farce adverse.