Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Rookery Nook" at the "Theatre by the Lake" in Keswick. Frantic and over-acted

“Rookery Nook” is a Ben Travers farce originally produced in 1926 and set in that time. It has been occasionally revived in the post war era but as with the other “Aldwych farces” it is perhaps too dated to be produced often in our very different times. However the “Theatre by the Lake” has included it in their 2014 summer season in a new production directed by Ian Forrest. The excellent Keswick Theatre has built a fine and deserved reputation and in recent years has often included a farce in its repertory. Farces by Joe Orton, Michael Frayn, John Chapman (“Dry Rot”) and Philip King (“See how they Run”) have been successfully produced - but this is the first farce from the inter-war years and from the Aldwych.

Farce is one of the most difficult of theatrical genres to pull off. There is, as in pantomime, an agreement with the audience that they are not meant literally to “believe” what they are seeing. But a more modern farce, like Ayckbourn's “Bedroom Farce” or Frayn’s “Noises Off” just about hold on to reality. That is not the case with “Rookery Nook” not because the raw situation is particularly farcical but because the characters and especially their attitudes are. The plot is slight:

The young Rhoda Marley is thrown out of her house in her pyjamas  by her angry step-father, a pantomimic German, for eating wurtleberries. She finds herself at the house of newlywed young man Gerald Popkiss, who is visiting his in-laws the Twines. She cannot leave without causing a scandal unless she finds a dress to wear. Gerald's unmarried cousin Clive likes the look of her, and attempts are made to get her some clothes, firstly from the Twines and then from her own house. Clothes are eventually exchanged with a local  and rather raunchy caller Poppy  a lady selling flags for the lifeboats. When Gerald's snooty wife Gertrude turns she finds the scantily-clad Poppy woman in his bedroom – you get the idea! Possibly!  It all ends happily of course.

I may have missed some of the subtleties of the plot, but I don’t think so as there really aren’t any. For the modern audience the premise, that a young woman could cause a scandal in these innocent circumstances just doesn’t work. Presumably it did in 1926 which in a way was odd as only the year before Noel Coward had presented “Fallen Angels” which although controversial with its theme of infidelity was accepted. Anyway with farce we shouldn’t get too bothered if the plot is preposterous – they always are!

The reason that this production of “Rookery Nook” failed for me was in the performances – which is really to say that the failure was in the direction. Without exception the actors over-act. There are extravagant gestures. The dim-witted Harold Twine, Gertrude’s husband, is straight out of a cartoon book in his gaucheness and his ineptitude. Gertrude herself is another comic-book character a sort of Margo Ledbetter on speed – and twice as nasty. Rhoda is silly, with a high-pitched voice and a style more suited to a nine-year-old than a (reasonably) mature young woman. The German is straight from central casting – as if a Drama School exercise had been “Play an archetypical German”. And so on.

The “agreement with the audience” I felt was broken form the start. Not because the plot lacks believability – that we expected - but because the characters did. In the theatre you usually need at least one hero (and often one villain) – one to care about and the other to boo and hiss. In this production we didn’t really care about any of the characters and I’m not sure that we believed in the villains either. It was all too silly. It’s a long play and sadly it dragged on what was a production well below the “The Theatre by the Lake’s” usual high standard. It was too frantic and too over-acted. A couple of days earlier they had excelled in “The Comedy of Errors” – also arguably a farce. Or maybe it was just that Shakespeare was a better writer than Ben Travers!


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