Subtlety isn’t something you’d expect in the broad strokes of farcical comedy but there are some wonderfully nuanced performances here. For example, Bret Jones is perfectly suited to the role of the much put-upon yet stubbornly loyal butler Horton, expressing a good deal of character from some well-timed eye rolling and head-tilting.
Our hero, “Bobby” The Earl of Harpenden (Freddie Hutchins) quickly endears himself to the audience despite being a bit of a wet lettuce. Hutchins, among a number of the cast, overcame some visible nervousness in the opening to string together the storyline which revolves about the young and ineffectual aristocrat. Although I felt he may have peaked too early in places with the volume and enthusiastic gesticulating, he shows a young man on the brink of having everything he’s hoped for being taken away from him. Hutchins, with a firm grasp of the rather verbose text, shows Bobby as a gently effeminate and slightly pathetic chap who we can’t help but feel sorry for despite all of his privilege and wealth.
His fiancée, Lady Elizabeth (ideally cast in Greer Dale-Foulkes) is beautifully sweet as, mistaken for a “trollop”, she is wooed and plied with scotch by Lieutenant Mulvaney (confidently played by Iestyn Arwel). Staring out with a nervous smile and pleading blue eyes, her expression's subtle skip between desperation and lust with pinpoint comic timing are priceless as she politely tries to make sense of the chaos that unfolds around her. Playing her gambling-addicted father, Patrick Rogers seems a little too young to have a daughter Elizabeth’s age, but his performance, full of authoritative bluster with a rich vocal tone, more than makes up for the visual casting. He is also responsible for some of the biggest laughs, delivering Rattigan’s hilarious one-liners pitch-perfectly.
As soon as one character leaves another enters, bringing a further appeal to the affections of Bobby’s sweetheart. Mulvaney is the all-American with stocky build and seductive smile. He competes with Colbert (Mark Conway), the Frenchman who is also convinced of a “white hot passion” with the young bride-to-be and seems to be on loan from the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo. To top it all, Sophia Sibthorpe assuredly plays self-styled trollop Mabel Crum who, unlike Elizabeth, knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. As caricatured as they were, each performance added to a strong company dynamic which delivered as much farce as could be squeezed from the text.
That said, the cast took a while to settle in the early scenes. Although their confidence justifiably grew, there was a lot of looking down at the ground when they could have been allowing the audience a stronger connection with their characters. The pace, energy and wit more than covered for these insecurities, but with such wonderful expressions going on, I wanted to be able to see a bit more of their faces.
With the simple living room set, Hannah Hardinge has made the best of a modest budget to suggest the lavish chambers of the Harpenden residence, providing all of the essentials for the story, including the much-used globe drinks cabinet. Costume and props are kept to the basics also, with a slice of bread and a tomato to indicate breakfast and slightly inaccurate military costumes. None of these really detract from the action and with a few minor exceptions, director Marieke Audsley keeps the story rolling along at a riotous pace. By the interval it was hard to imagine there would be enough story or indeed energy left but, such is the calibre of Rattigan’s script and commitment of the cast, the second half skipped along with belly laughs aplenty.
The direction of this production doesn’t go too far in ridiculing the upper classes, but instead presents a loveable comedy of charm, quick wit and silliness which won’t fail to provide a highly enjoyable evening.