Straight from the horses mouth
In this current climate of dodgy politicians, corrupt cricketers and footballers fraudulently pretending to actually give a d… it was quite fitting that this week’s foray to the theatre was to watch a Whitehall Farce centred around a crooked bookie and his two accomplices devising a cunning plan to ‘get rich quick’. John Chapman’s play, first performed in 1954, is set in the 1930’s with the quintessential English approach to loveable rogues, the stiff upper lip of the officer classes and the almost dismissive way ‘Johnny foreigner’ is treated.
The plot is simplicity in itself – Honest Alf, Flash Harry and Fred (I kid you not, these are the names used) plan to kidnap the odds-on favourite horse and replace it with their own decrepit nag and thus, by laying on the horse to lose, pocket a tidy £10,000. Think Arthur Daley running Channel 4 racing. In true style, the plan immediately starts to unravel, first when they realise that the replacement horse would never pass muster as the favourite, and then when they take up their digs for race week only to find that the jockey, a diminutive Frenchman who speaks not a word of the Queens English, is also ‘stabled’ at the same inn. Secret passages, eccentric characters and malapropisms abound to create a degree of controlled mayhem.
The pacing isn’t perhaps as slick and tight as some of the better known farces; there was a little too much time taken with setting up the back story of the Colonel and his family having only recently taken over the inn, but it is a nostalgic look back at a style of stage production which ruled the West End for many decades. The fact that Dry Rot features in the National Theatres top 100 plays of all time is more to recognise the well crafted script than any timelessness of the production.
The slapstick style of mad-cap humour normally associated with farce is sadly missing , but this didn’t really detract from a very funny story played out by a very capable cast of some of the country’s best loved faces, including Liza Goddard, Susan Penhaligon (with a creamy West Country accent that made me weak everytime she spoke), Gareth Hale & Norman Pace, Neil Stacy and Derren Nesbitt.
Particular mention to Zoe Mills as Susan Wagstaff who brought a real period feel to her look and performance – part wide eyed debutante, part love struck damsel whose flawless appearance is very reminiscent of the silent movie screen idols Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet.
Farces are a dying production, driven to their graves by the desire for more immediate, and perhaps more risque humour, but there is still a place for a good farce, if for no other reason than to see where our current comedic shows have their roots. Dry Rot is on at Darlington Civic until Saturday June 30th