See How They Run
Michael Billington, The Guardian
Quintessential Englishness ... See How They Run
Aside from Donkeys'' Years, we farce-fanciers have been starved of late. So it is a delight to welcome Philip King''s wartime classic back into the West End after a gap of 22 years. And, watching Douglas Hodge''s superb revival, I was struck by the play''s quintessential Englishness. For a start, it could only work in a country that found vicars cherishably funny. Set in a rural parsonage in 1942, it depends upon a stage foaming with five clerics of whom only three are the genuine article. It would be idle to disentangle the insane plot except to say that the two imposters are a faintly camp actor and a fugitive German internee. But everything builds towards the moment when an apopleptic bishop, pointing towards a sofa stuffed with dog-collared figures, cries: "Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars."
Where French farce is about sex, English farce also depends on words. It''s hard to explain why the name of the resident vicar, Lionel Toop, is funny: It just is; so when the camp actor is addressed as "my dear Toop", he reacts as if he''s just been goosed. King also understands that, in English, the most innocent phrase can acquire a double meaning. When a love-starved, bicycling spinster announces "I''m having a little trouble with my inner tube", the mind reels. But Hodge realises that farce, is chiefly about performance; and accordingly he has engaged a crack team. Toop''s wife is an ex-thesp suddenly visited by an old chum with whom she toured for 43 weeks in Private Lives; and the sight of the svelte Nancy Carroll and the exuberantly fey Jo Stone-Fewings lapsing into their old sparring roles is as delicious as the moment in Hay Fever when the Blisses replay their old hits.
With a cast this good, it is tempting to run through the card. Tim Pigott-Smith as a gaitered bishop is a model of stiff-backed propriety. The roly-poly Nicholas Blane, as a bona fide vicar, has a sublime moment when he is handed an imaginary glass of brandy by his hostess and reacts like a saint who has wandered into a madhouse. And Natalie Grady as a strangely censorious maid and Julie Legrand as the intrusive spinster who, when sozzled, takes on the pliability of a bendybus, add to the sense of escalating absurdity.
It may be an evening tinged with nostalgia. But it proves that farce is the essence of theatre in that it requires physical agility, spot-on timing and is capable of transforming a preposterous situation into spiralling ecstasy. Like Kenneth Tynan with Look Back In Anger, I couldn''t love anyone who didn''t relish See How They Run.
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