This is a welcome revival of a less well known, but very funny, farce written by Phillip King. King was serving as conscripted aircrew based in London when See How They Run made its West End debut in 1945. The opening night was almost wrecked, in the literal sense, when air raid sirens preceded the arrival of three “Doodlebug” V2 rockets which exploded around the city. But the stoic theatregoers were unmoved, not a soul leaving mid performance for either the warning, or the explosions – it must have been a good night!
First staged in 1944 by ENSA in Peterborough, it embraced the desire of a war weary population to be entertained, titillated and laugh. To be offered a few hours escape from the drudgery of wartime Britain. It relies heavily on mistaken identity, doors, and vicars, staples of British farce. While the lights were going out in Europe, they defiantly remained on in the West End. Even under the threat of bombardment and invasion the British public never lost its appetite for the sight of people running round a vicarage in their underwear, then, or now. Thus, we are presented with a bishop, a stoic maid, a repressed spinster, and a problem with trousers – elements compounded by the arrival of a German prisoner escaped from a nearby internment camp.
The major test of any comic farce is: “Did it make me, and the audience, laugh?” Yes it did! The single lounge set (with plenty of doors) works well, and the costuming too, convinces in creating a Second World War feel. For a script that is over seventy years old the gags felt fresh, which is to the great credit of both the director and cast.
Christopher Water’s production has a pleasing lightness of touch that brings out the best from a very strong team. Liz Webster has most of the fun as local gossip, and failed suitor to the vicar, Miss Skillion. Her characterisation borrows from Hilda Ogden, Lily Savage and Mata Hari. Although incapacitated through drink, concussion and cupboard incarceration for periods during proceedings, her acerbic wit and energy drives the show on. David Weller plays one of two real vicars, Lionel Toop, with godly calm, apart from when he is running around in his underwear brandishing a weapon. His wife Penelope,( Suzy Donnelly), is a delight, ditzy, racy and desperately trying to get herself out of trouble with old acting friend Clive (Rod Blisset), whose assumed status as a vicar commences the calamitous turn of events which befalls the characters.
Les Wilkes makes the most of the comic opportunities offered by his part as an escaped German POW. Cartoon like, it amused as much now as it would have delighted a wartime audience, he too assumes the part of a vicar. To confuse matters further, Rob Onions appears as a waspishly funny Humphrey, a cameo part, another vicar.
Andy Jones’ Bishop is understandably bewildered as to which of them is actually ordained, leading him to exclaim: “I should like to know what everything means.” Brandy seems to be the cure for all that is going wrong at the vicarage, causing the Bishop to reflect; “I thought you were called to the Church, when in fact you have been called to the Bar!”
But I would like to offer a special mention to Lorraine Samantha Allen’s portrayal of downtrodden, but romance hungry, maid, Ida. Amidst the chaos which surrounds her, she valiantly tries to do her job. Her part is to oil the wheels of the plot, which she does adroitly, and with much skill. Her frustration and blind eye is as important to the plot as the extravagant excesses of her fellow cast members.
As with all good farce, order is finally re-established, trousers recovered, and dignity restored. The cast look exhausted, however, having clocked up a fair number of laps around the stage, and through the auditorium. An Army Sergeant (Chris Walters), ends up making sense of it all in a finale which is well written and satisfying.
This really is a first rate show and runs until 23rd January. Don’t miss it.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.