It's a farcical guilty pleasure
Clive Francis and James Dutton
Park Theatre, London N4
It is probably best to see this revival of Ben Travers’s 1927 Aldwych farce as a guilty pleasure. Actor and writer Clive Francis has shaved the original comedy down from three acts to two halves. The first mostly concerns whether philandering aristo Sir Hector Benbow (played by Francis) will get away with the attempted seduction of a shop girl after the formidable Lady Benbow arrives home unexpectedly. Hector’s cover story, constructed with the reluctant help of his hapless nephew Ronny, allays little of Lady Benbow’s suspicion but succeeds in creating an awful lot in Ronny’s fiancée. Act two sees the action move to the Benbows’ haunted retreat, the name of which is the play’s title.
It’s hard to tell exactly where and how Francis has punched up the script, but in the hands of director Eleanor Rhode and with the help of a slightly surreal but ingenious design by Cherry Truluck, this production achieves a surprising amount of tension given that the characters lack enough depth to be described as shallow. But that’s not to say they are badly performed. The monocled Francis is wonderfully caddish as the rogue Hector, exuding the rakish charm of Leslie Phillips in the Carry On movies, who had the knack of turning “hello” into a sexual obscenity.
As Ronny, James Dutton compensates for the clunkiness of his lines with knowing grimaces at his own gaucheness — and as Lady Benbow, Mary Keegan manages to deliver something a little more intelligent than the two-dimensional battleaxe in the script. But the show-stealing performance is delivered by Andrew Jarvis as Thark’s death-warmed-up butler Jones. His doffing professional courtesy is interspersed with the kind of random cries and groans that would send a shiver up the collective spines of the Addams Family.
The evening ultimately feels like a homage to a much-loved and probably best-forgotten form. Critical reception of the original production apparently praised the performances while concluding that the play was too insubstantial to be anything more than mildly diverting entertainment. And however many improvements Francis has made, it is still not possible to say that this time Thark deserves a better, or even a different notice from the ones it received in 1927.