‘It’s very funny but it’s not very politically correct, is it?’ was my fiancée’s verdict as we left the theatre. If you prefer brevity, read no further as that neatly sums up what is to follow.
Ray Cooney has long been acknowledged as a master of farce. This play had its first run in the West End in 1983 and, while some might find its dependence on specific humorous devices, subjects and situations out of place in 2016, it is equally likely to have many laughing out loud. Happily, BLT’s opening night audience fell firmly within the latter camp (sic), evident in the laughter that filled the theatre throughout, especially as its web of deceit and contrivance became ever more tangled during the second half.
The plot revolves (positively whirls!) around London taxi-driver John Smith’s efforts to maintain a status quo wherein he and wife Barbara live in a Streatham flat while the same he and wife Mary live in a Wimbledon flat, each wife totally unaware of anything untoward within or beyond her marriage. After intervening in an attempted mugging, subsequently headlined within the local newspaper, John endeavours to stave off the revelation of his double life, aided by his and Mary’s lodger Stanley.
Clearly, this production faces some interesting challenges, in terms of precise casting and of managing the frantic comings and goings demanded within a dual set on a relatively small stage. In the latter respect, it succeeds creditably: staging is simple but effective, establishing from the outset that one lounge is actually and simultaneously two.
In a wordless opening, Mary (Alyssa Thompson) and Barbara (Mary Almeida) establish their parallel frustration at John’s failure to return home last night. Through subsequent and simultaneous telephone calls, they quickly establish their distinctive characters. Both actresses create and sustain entirely convincing characterisations that stand out throughout, their presences enhancing every sequence in which they appear.
As their shared husband, Alan Dester does well throughout in a central role in which timing and energy are critical to success. Martyn Brown, who plays his partner-in-crime, Stanley, is, according to his programme notes, ‘dynamic’ – a brave epithet to bestow upon oneself! While suitably on edge throughout and working hard (too hard?) to maintain the comic momentum, relative inexperience produces an over-reliance on a relatively narrow range of gestures and facial expressions, while his physical fidgeting would be more effective if used more selectively.
Jeremy Austin and Keith Morbey contribute solid performances as Detective Sergeants Troughton and Porterhouse respectively, the latter especially effective in a confidently understated and quietly authoritative performance. And then, of course, there is that political incorrectness, personified in David Beddard’s irresistibly camp upstairs neighbour, Bobby Franklin, played with conviction, consistency and plausibility.
Collectively, the cast work well: even in sequences and combinations of characters where the cogs don’t mesh quite so smoothly, the momentum is maintained. Under John Sivewright’s confident direction, the whole holds together well with some passages particularly assured and fluent. Not unusually in a first night – but always such a shame – at times actors needed to ride the laughs more effectively, ensuring that subsequent, often equally important or funny lines were lost. Equally, some comic lines are played too heavily or thrown away, inexperience perhaps the source of such misjudgements.
Despite having played John Smith in Cooney’s much later sequel, Caught in the Net, I had somehow managed never to have seen Run for Your Wife. I have now – and it was fun.
Future performances: 5-10 September at 7.45.