saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
The Drayton Theatre
15th December 2017
Having made plans to entertain the lovely Cherry Buck (Isabella Hayward), Sir Hector Benbow (Mathijs Swarte) is horrified to find out that his wife, Lady Benbow (Charlotte Vassell) is - not unreasonably - on her way home. To their house. Where she lives. This leads to a comedy of errors where his nephew, Ronny Gamble (Robin Blell) is roped into being the cover story for his indiscretion, despite Ronny being engaged to Sir Hector's ward, Kitty Stratton (Natalia Lewis). Butler Hook (Daniel Casper) and maid Warner (Sophia Lorenti) try to keep up with the various comings and goings, but with Mrs Frush (Ellie Gill) and her son Lionel Frush (Alexander Hopwood) also repeat visitors to the Benbows' home, you could forgive them for not quite managing.
A lot happens in the four acts, yet playwright Ben Travers never explores any of his ideas in any meaningful way. Although Hook is clearly emotional about becoming a father, we never revisit his initial excitement. Whilst Kitty Stratton is a ward of the Benbows, Travers never tells us why she isn't being looked after by her own parents. Is there a tragic backstory there? The plotline with Kitty's allegedly haunted ancestral home gives the play its title and introduces even more characters into an already crowded list of protagonists, such as Whittle (Kieran Slade), a passing journalist. However, the change in setting makes for an regretfully abrupt ending rather than a satisfying resolution.
The writing is light, both in terms of tone and detail. Travers though hasn't shunned character development in favour of wit - whilst there are indeed some funny moments, these are largely entertaining due to the timing and movement of the performers. His words are often secondary to bringing the laughter. A true farce demands not only tight pacing, but a much more sharply written script - the underlying material is unfortunately weak.
The first scene change shows a clear attempt by director Matthew Parker to stubbornly eke out as much humour and depth from the text as he can. We have fun with Philip Matejtschuk's jazzy arrangement of Queen Bey's pop anthem Crazy in Love and we observe how Parker puts the focus on the female protagonists here, even though the script itself seems to favour the men. It's a very telling interlude that prompts us to start wondering about where the balance of power really lies in Parker's take. Lady Benbow doesn't seem to find her husband's infidelity particularly surprisingly or upsetting. Kitty is the one who intervenes in a business deal gone wrong, and who has Ronny begging for her forgiveness. The women in Hector's life are actually quite cool and collected, with Hector and his nephew the ones running around looking increasingly foolish.
As much as Parker has done his best to invigorate this play, the performance I watched unfortunately suffered from the most disrespectful audience I have ever encountered. Talking, playing with phones, scrunching noisy packets of crisps and candy - the place where inexplicible things happened in the dark wasn't the fictional Thark residence, rather in the seats beside me. With the majority of patrons desperately trying to ignore the troublemakers and just concentrate, it was a constant struggle to get into the story and this left the actors very little to bounce off. Unable to read those who were there for the art, and unwilling to pay attention to those there to vandalise it, the actors were put in an impossible position. In the circumstances, the performance they delivered was magnificent and they truly adhered to the unbreakable spirit of "the show must go on".
The timing was excellent in places, most notably in the second half when certain individuals had worn themselves out with their crimes against theatre and weren't noisily attempting to derail the actors. However, some of the pauses were a whisker too short and others ever so slightly overlong. Had the actors been able to react to a normal audience, I have no doubt the timing would have been tighter. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, the distracting sounds from the stalls could be responsible for Swarte's accent sometimes meandering from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Playing one of the key characters, he had a lot of on-stage time and therefore a lot more to endure.
Swarte and Blell make for a great double act, with some ridiculously glorious physical comedy, particularly toward the end of the first half. Lorenti also shines in her second role as a housekeeper called Death, slowly walking across the stage with stilted movements and a constantly pained expression. She brings just the right amount of comedy and creepiness to the manor. As for Granville Saxton and Bryony J Thompson, their thoughtful set design and costume design add a touch of class to the production.
Speaking of which, the actors deserve a better class of audience. If you know how to sit through a show without wailing, playing with your phone and grazing from a sharing size bag of crisps that you're not even sharing, please do support Thark. It's a production that will respond to the energy of an audience who actually want to be there, and one which will undoubtedly tighten up over the course of its run.
Thark opened on 12th December and runs until 6th January 2018 at the Drayton Theatre.
Nearest tube station: Gloucester Road (Piccadilly, Circle, District)