This 1992 comedy play by Richard Harris puts several exaggerated stereotypical characters into two adjoining, semi-detached, suburban back gardens – and stirs, with hilarious consequences.
In one house it is the night of the house-warming fancy-dress barbecue for obsessive doctor Michael (Bob Rankin, who also directs) and his exasperated wife, Roma (Fiona Richards), while in the neighbouring house, former market barrow-boy turned successful greengrocery entrepreneur, David (Peter Watson), is making an infrequent visit to his controlling and manipulative mother, Mrs Hinson (Estelle Hughes). David is soon joined by his second wife, Jennifer (Janine Williams), while over in the party house only two guests – Toby (Phil Davies) and Sandy (Suzanne Viney) – turn up, the remainder of the invitees having given a series of unlikely excuses (is there something they know that we don’t?).
Creating a set comprising two back gardens, side by side, complete with garden sheds and entrances into houses on the tiny Broadstone stage is a challenge, but set designer Peter Watson (he who is also playing David) has plenty of experience of this venue. Once again we see his use of the sliding French window, with no glass, behind which the actors argue and rage silently – to great effect.
There are comparatively few laughs in the first act as the characters are introduced; the conflicts between Mrs Hinson and David’s wife and the stresses imposed on the relationship next door by the unthawed barbecue food (now who hasn’t had that problem?) and by Michael’s obsessive behaviour become apparent. There are some comic touches, though: David seems unable to give a straight answer to any question and Peter Watson delivers his dead-pan one-liners with aplomb, while Mrs Hinson invents ever more cruel put-downs of poor Jennifer, comparing her, unfavourably, to David’s first wife. Jennifer flicks rude gestures at Mrs Hinson’s back before finally throwing the old lady’s Zimmer frame over into the neighbouring garden.
The pace and the humour livens up after the interval when Michael and Roma are revealed in their reversed-role fancy-dress characters as Fred Astaire (Roma) and Ginger Rogers (Michael) and then the guests arrive. Bob Rankin (now as Ginger) causes some hilarity with his dress while proceeding to set lots of things on fire, including his wig. Phil Davies plays a comparatively straight role as Toby, while Suzanne Viney as Sandy injects a lot of bubbly good humour. There is significant humour provided by another problem neighbour, as an unseen Irishman causes chaos in the road outside.
It is a complicated and frenetic script and there were the odd opening night problems with forgotten lines and mistimed entrances, but there are a lot of laughs to be had and they were well enjoyed by the audience. Peter Watson received a round of applause for his response in competent Spanish to Suzanne Viney’s hesitant ‘Spanglish’ question, ‘¿Hablar Español?’, but the star of this show is undoubtedly Estelle Hughes as the exaggerated, but oh-so-familiar, mother and mother-in-law from Hell – an awful lot of lines, delivered with excellent comic timing in a very convincing ‘trying to be middle-class but failing’ accent.
Party Piece plays until 25 November at 7.30 each evening, with a matinée on Saturday at 2.15.