Party Piece- Grange Players, Grange Playhouse, Walsall



Although author Richard Harris is relatively unknown to the general public, his writing has figured in numerous hit television series and stage shows. For television, he was a regular contributor for forty years, from 1960 to 2000, writing for shows like The Saint, The Avengers, The Sweeney, A Touch of Frost, and Darling Buds of May. Some forty of his plays have been performed for stage. Thus his grasp of drama, and comedy, is a given. The only variable is the production. Harris fans will see similarities with one of his earlier plays, Local Affairs.

Events unfold in the back gardens of two adjacent neighbours, as Doctor Michael and his wife Roma’s fancy dress house-warming party descends into disaster and chaos, incorporating a notable shortage of guests, a shed engulfed by smoke, and an aerodynamic Zimmer frame. Grange Players have located the action in Walsall. Martin Groves and his team have done a marvellous job creating a back gardens set with full rear elevations, incorporating all manner of associated horticultural paraphernalia, and a mural of a Walsall church.

Next door, an elderly woman is being persuaded to sell up by her son, David. Mrs Hinson is curmudgeonly, scheming, duplicitous and has a Zimmer frame which her long suffering daughter in law suspects is for cosmetic sympathy purposes only. Her downtrodden, over-mothered only son David,  (Christopher Waters) stoically battles with his mothers’ foibles, not least of which is her refusal to accept his wife Jennifer (Liz Webster), while trying to improve his mother’s (bad) humour. Jennifer does not like being ignored, or being compared to David’s previous consorts, resulting in regular mutual sniping, culminating in her launching her mother in law’s Zimmer frame into the distance with considerable enthusiasm.

Rod Bissett as Dr Michael portrays a neurotic, fastidious man with an excessive estimation of his own talents, which sadly do not include an ability to procure defrosted food for a barbecue. His wife Roma,(Jill Simkin), struggles to help him to rectify this omission, and his serial other shortcomings, to repeated comic effect. She ends up as deflated as her squashed top hat. He ends up as a man on the edge.

Only two invited guests actually turn up to the barbecue, Toby (Andy Jones) and man-hunting Sandy, (Louise Farmer). Both milk the most from their supporting roles, the former, in a kilt, after free food and booze. The latter, after “up –for- it” men, sporting tight white shorts which are somewhat hotter than the barbecue, a rather good Welsh accent, and some good jokes. Both inject vital energy into the second half script.

However it is the abrasive and formidable long standing resident Mrs Hinson, wonderfully played by Sheila Grew, who steals the limelight. Initially she neither appreciates her upwardly mobile new neighbours, nor the gentrification of the area, until the benefits of having a doctor next door for her numerous ailments dawn on her. Her own property and her persona are perfectly matched- frayed around the edges.

Liz Webster, Christopher Waters and Sheila combine formidably in the first half to garnish a slight script with amusing bickering, and acid asides. The plot is enlivened overall by two unseen figures; David’s first wife Rosemary, who stalks Jennifer through Mrs Hinson’s rose tinted memory, and burly Gareth, husband of randy Sandy, who stalks the party as his arrival, and the consequences, are anticipated.

This is escapist fun, with improbable, implausible plot twists, cross-dressing, and a big fat smile on its face. Director Martin Groves and producer David Stone have realised a fast-paced farce that depends upon rapid exits and entrances, timeous sound effects, and perfect verbal and physical timing. It delivers in spades, and with plenty of laughs. Party Piece runs to 19-03-16, returns only for this sold out show.

Gary Longden

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