We tend to have a rather stilted view of Victorian theatre – high tragedy at the top end, bawdy music hall at the other, with maybe a smattering of Gilbert and Sullivan in between. So this presentation of four short one-act farces is welcome. Often performed as a prelude to more serious fare, an evening of comic vignettes highlights the delights – and the occasional drawbacks – of the form.
John Maddison Morton’s Box and Cox, in which a day worker and night worker discover that their crafty landlady has rented them the same apartment, figuring their work patterns would never meet, has a great setup. Asta Parry’s Mrs Bouncer is a slight role – little more than a Victorian Mrs Overall – but Parry fills in the blanks well. In contrast, the principals (Richard Latham and John O’Connor) don’t quite connect, with the unfortunate result that the main conceit – one which in its day was popular enough to inspire political cartoons – ends up giving the impression that the whole evening could be an adventure in misguided revivalism.
Thankfully, the second play, Wanted, A Young Lady, starts to pick up. While one gets the impression that Latham’s simple manservant, Simon, is somewhat older than the original script may have intended, O’Connor begins to come alive as the ne’er-do-well man who poses first as his more tolerable brother, then his own grandmother, in pursuit of a young woman. Again, it is Parry who outshines the two men.
A shame, then, that in the third piece, A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, Parry is largely absent. Thankfully, the piece itself – an old man’s desire for a peaceful afternoon in is spoiled by the intrusion of a man who tries to drown himself in the older man’s duck pond – makes up for it. I’m not sure the breaking out of character during the epilogue (if the Victorians knew of the term post-modernism, they’d surely be using it in reference to this piece) is especially effective to an audience unused to plays ending with the characters directly addressing them, but it does at least show that the writers of the day were not afraid to challenge the strictures of the form.
While this type of theatre may have died out in its original form, remnants of it live on: the epilogue, the bringing of the audience into the characters’ confidence, lives on in panto as well as more mainstream fare such as One Man Two Guvnors. And the humour itself is not too dissimilar from some of the extended scenes that TV shows by Les Dawson and Morecambe and Wise were performing into the 1970s, while A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion‘s absurdist dialogue feels bright and contemporary.
And that’s borne out by the fourth and final piece, Duel in the Dark, which provides the meatiest roles for the actors, the sharpest (and smuttiest) dialogue, and the most enjoyment for the audience. Once again it is Parry who excels. Here, playing a woman who attempts to catch out her philandering husband by donning several disguises. There is a pace and charm to this piece which exceeds many a modern full-length play, and it ensures that the evening of performances goes out on a high.
Four Farces continues at Wilton’s Musical Hall until June 27, with further performances at Chipping Norton on July 2 and Greenwich Theatre on July 4 & 5.