Tag Archives: farce

Civil Rogues – Pleasance Theatre

I still haven’t been to the Edinburgh Fringe.  Ever.  (Summer 2015 I will be there, come hell, high water or Scottish Independence).  So I am always keen to see shows which get a run in London post-festival.  I came across Civil Rogues completely by accident (Thank you Battersea Arts Centre – your retweet of their show was well timed), and loved the idea.  It is 1649: the king has been executed, the Puritans are closing the theatres.  Halfway through that evening’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, 3 male actors are forced to go on the run from the authorities – still in their dresses, petticoats and stage make-up.

Laurie Davidson and Elliott Ross. Photo by Daniel Swerdlow.

We begin with Romeo (Ed David) and Juliet (Elliott Ross) trying to continue with their scene, in spite of the hammering at every door. In a desperate bid to give the audience as much of the play as possible, they up the speed and the romance of “but soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” is delivered with machine gun pace and the tenderness to match. It is quite a skill to speak that fast and Ed David had me helpless with laughter barely 30 seconds into the play. As Oliver Cromwell’s henchmen storm the theatre, the actors scatter in a rush for freedom. The script does go a little overboard on the swearing (I always think less is more), but the soldiers are more panto-villain-inept-sidekick than genuinely menacing and this fits in well with what is intended to be an evening of lighthearted fun.

The 3 actors who successfully escape – the naive Charles Hart (Elliott Ross), the diva-ish William Gascoigne (Laurie Davidson) and the acidic Richard Baxter (Sam Woolf) – find themselves blagging their way into the house of a Royalist supporter and persuading the other servants that they’re “the new girls” while they lay low and figure out what to do. They each flip between 3 identities, often within a split second: the male actors running for their lives, their Shakespearean characters, and their newly assumed feminine disguises.

This is very much a play for a theatrical audience with lots of references to other Shakespeare plays – the Henry V line “We few. We happy few. We band of brothers.” was very apt.  When the lady of the house, the brightly optimistic Lady Margaret Cavendish (Kate Craggs) wants to lose a lot of money very quickly to stop Cromwell getting hold of her riches, she and her maid Phoebe (Danielle Winter) hatch a plan to stage a play (still a very expensive venture) and pour the money into the pockets of actors. The 3 new laundry girls, Cordelia, Bianca and Regina hint that they know the whereabouts of some actors who would be interested in performing again. But Regina (Sam Woolf) melodramatically insists that she shall never allow her daughters on the stage.

This wouldn’t be a farce without a heap of mistaken identities, disguises and hiding in laundry baskets, and it has this in spades. Baxter (as Regina) fiendishly tells Lady Cavendish that Mr Gascoigne the actor is here to see her, sending Gascoigne (as Bianca) into a panic as he/she tries to work out how to be both people in the same room at the same time. He persuades her to wear a blindfold and leaps around the room switching voices. Laurie Davidson makes this look both laboured and slick, exactly as you’d wish. Two of Cromwell’s cronies are mistaken for the other actors and one of the male servants, Daniel (Ed Davis again) falls in love with Cordelia/Charles Hart. Baxter deliberately engineers it for Daniel to play Romeo and Hart to play Juliet, only Daniel can’t get his head around it being “a man in a dress”. The moment before they kiss is hilariously awkward.

I felt that there was room for the play to have gone further with the farcial element – I was expecting to see the two soldiers unwittingly cast in the play and for one of the actors to find themselves having to switch genders at least once during the abridged Romeo and Juliet. Instead the play went largely went without a hitch and soldiers stormed the house as the starcrossed lovers lay dying. If they decide to revive this at a later date, they have a great concept to work from – I’d just like to see them tangle it up even further. But still, a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Civil Rogues is on at The Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7 9EF until Saturday 7th September 2014.  For tickets and more information, go to https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/civil-rogues-london#overview 

The Upstanding Member – The Old Red Lion Theatre

When I did Boeing Boeing earlier this year, our director’s son emailed Mark Rylance to ask if he had any tips (Rylance had played Robert in West End and Broadway).  We did indeed get a reply of “Don’t play for laughs.  Play to terrify the audience about what might happen next.”  I would like to add to this the genuine sense that each character really is ‘winging it’ and desperately trying to keep up with the pace of unfolding events.  The Upstanding Member brings its fair share of terror.

The Right Honorable ____________ ______ MP has taken out a super-injunction against a young woman and when it turns out that she’s pregnant, he invites her to his second home on Christmas Eve to sort things out on the quiet.  Add into this mix some unscrupulous journalists/thieves, his lawyer, his wife and another man all trapped in the same room and the tangle of fibs becomes ever more muddled.  Playwright Gregory Skulnick’s typing fingers do seem to have run away with themselves at times, but when he reins them in, this is a cracking comedy full of lies, counter lies, mistaken identities and a light smattering of the sort of cheap laughs you can only get away with in farce.

The Man (Stephen Omer) is unapologetically pompous and quite happy to sort everything out with money.  But prostitute Gloria (Kate Craggs) is refusing to be bought off quietly and wants to go public with her pregnancy.  She treads a fine line between boldness and realising she may not actually get away with this after all.  Sorting things out is made rather difficult with the arrival of his wife, Beatrice (Carole Street) whose unfazed facial expressions tell us that this is a woman who knows exactly what is going on, yet she seems to revel in playing along just to watch her husband squirm.  His lawyer, Mr Graver (Ed Sheridan) cuts a desperate figure after all his hard work seems to have gone to waste overnight.

Alastair (Tim Dewberry) and Danny (Izaak Cainer) make a great double act as the pair of thieves who have to hide (slightly implausibly) behind a flag and coat when The Man comes home unexpectedly.  But they find themselves listening in on the juiciest details of his infidelity and when they are discovered, they deftly overcomplicate matters by announcing themselves as lawyers defending either party against the other.  A convoluted legal dispute begins which rapidly gets out of control, to hilarious effect, as neither The Man nor Gloria is prepared to admit the truth in front of his wife.  There is a real feeling that all of them are thinking on their feet and making it up as they go along.  A real challenge when this sort of comedy has to be rehearsed to precision.

This is a light-hearted bit of fun-poking into the world of politics, super-injunctions and the media, and you do begin to wonder “how are any of them going to get out of this?!”.  At the point when we seem to be heading for a stalemate, there is thankfully a break in proceedings which unclutters the stage and gets the story over a hump (where I really thought we were going to start going over already-used material).  There is room to tighten up the writing to make this really slick, but this is still an enjoyable laugh-out-loud comedy in one of London’s most intimate and quirky venues.

The Upstanding Member is on at The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London, EC1V 4NJ,  until 4th January.  This is a one-act play with no interval.  For tickets and more information, go to http://www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk/the-upstanding-member.htm

Boeing Boeing – from page to stage

“Farce is a tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.” – John Mortimer

How very true.  After months of preparation, line learning, swearing, optimistic visual cues, line running and more swearing, we have finally opened ‘Boeing Boeing’ to our paying audiences at The Miller Centre Theatre, Caterham.  Whilst farce is often looked upon as one of the basest forms of humour, it is also one of the most demanding of its actors.  Pace, comic timing, cue-bite, fiendishly similar lines, lightning-fast costume changes and being rock solid on your thread of the story whilst maintaining the illusion that this is a situation hurtling dangerously out of control – all of these are essential.

Many friends outside of my theatre bubble ask ‘how do you learn all those lines?’ often referring to long speeches or pages and pages of dialogue.  In those cases, with relative ease; when you only have yourself and perhaps one other person to rely on, and a clear direction to the conversation, you record the lines, listen to them over and over in much the same way as you’d learn the words to a song.  But farce typically has lots of short, clipped lines, interjections, interruptions, repetition and similarity peppered throughout, especially so when the confusion mounts.  The best way to learn this is sheer brute force with the ‘shopping list’ method:

I went to the shops and I bought an orange.  I went to the shops and I bought an orange and two apples.  I went to the shops and I bought an orange and two apples and 3 pork chops.  etc etc etc.

It’s boring and time consuming, but it works!

We’ve also experienced that horribly, disconcerting point in the last few rehearsals – NO ONE IS LAUGHING ANY MORE.  In the first few weeks, you spend half of your time recovering from fits of the giggles, be it from lines, a carefully timed entrance, a pause, a facial expression – eventually you gain control of yourselves, you get books down and a few more people appear in the rehearsal studio, doubling as a mini-audience: stage manager, props, prompt, wardrobe, production committee, artistic director etc. their laughter buoys you and spurs you on.  But then everyone has to knuckle down and focus on their own tasks.  You are pouring every last inch of yourself into performing, only to have no audible feedback.

The greatest risk is going too far over the top or feeling so demoralised that you don’t give it everything.  I’ve experienced both with this rehearsal process – a few careful tweaks help to sharpen up the little bits that need ‘light and shade’.  It does of course help to have a small rent-a-crowd in for your final dress-rehearsal, partly to reassure you that it is still funny, but also to give you an indication of where an audience might laugh.  It’s a very tricky thing to balance; on one hand you don’t want to deliver a punchline followed by the sort of pause that aches with: “You can laugh now.”, but nor do you want to cut the laughter short!  (I challenge you to find me an actor who doesn’t revel in laughter and applause of their own making – we’re all suckers for it!)

Boeing Boeing had a very successful run in the West end about 6 years ago (which is where I first saw it and first knew that I wanted to play Gretchen one day).  I didn’t see the stint featuring Mark Rylance playing Robert, but our director’s son, being a great fan of Mr Rylance, sent him an email asking if he had any tips.  To our surprise, we actually got a reply:

“Don’t play for laughs; play to terrify the audience about what might happen next.”

This is possibly one of the best pieces of advice for farce that I’ve ever received.  With that in mind, we have stripped back some of the overdoing and instead worked more towards keeping the audiences stress levels up with every almost-catastrophic near-miss that we can manage!  This has been an immensely tough production to learn, rehearse and stage, but also one of great fun and reward.  We’d love to see you in the audience one night.  🙂

Boeing Boeing is at The Miller Centre Theatre, 30 Godstone Road, Caterham, Surrey CR3 6RA until Saturday 21st September.  Tickets can be booked from http://www.millercentretheatre.org