Thursday, 12 June 2008

See How They Run

10 June 2008
Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Blasts from the Past!

Great comedy is based on a loss of dignity, and while some of my nights out in the past may not have been that funny, I'm sure they caused someone great amusement!

But seriously, people in authority being brought down a peg or two or people in situations where they have to behave well and being made to look foolish have been the staple of comedy writers for centuries and that's why the vicar as become such a popular character in farce, especially when their trousers suddenly appear around their ankles!

So to eek out maximum fun from his wartime farce See How They Run, Philip King has given us not one vicar but FOUR - and also thrown in a Bishop for good measure!

This typical farce is a comedy of mistaken identities. Set in the village of Merton-cum-Middlewick, the proverbial "chaos ensues" when it becomes besieged by an escaped prisoner of war, a visiting priest, an actor, a locum priest and a policeman - all at the same time!

Meanwhile, parish spinster Miss Skillon makes a call to the vicar to discuss what, to her mind, is a far more pressing matter as she is outraged by the dalliances of the vicar’s wife, and of course gets embrolied in the action.

The publicity says that the resulting confusion provides an "hilarious" evening. Well, it is amusing certainly, and quite charming and genteel, but side-splitting it's not. I think this is because it is a play of its time (1945), and it was this fact that made the whole experience something that was almost moving for me rather than one that made me cry with laughter.

The first half spends a lot of time setting the scene, when it seemed that every statement is laboriously setting up something that will happen in the future. I found it a little slow but I produced a wry smile when former actor, Lance-Corporal Clive Winton (played well by Emmerdale's Dale Meeks) has to swap his army uniform for vicar's clothes and remarks that he's been in enough plays to know that when somebody swaps clothes bad things happen! I liked the fact that the author was acknowledging his devices! But, that aside I was beginning to shift around in my seat.

Then I spent the interval reading the programme notes and really thinking about it a bit more.

The writer Philip King was conscripted in the Second World War and wrote See How They Run in his spare time, which is quite a feat in itself under the circumstances. It was first staged in Peterborough in 1944 and transferred to the Comedy Theatre in London in January 1945. Now imagine. Two cities filled with service personel and war weary civilians desparately looking for some form of of amusement, something to make them smile in those dark days that were often filled with little hope. Imagine a comedy play about a vicar and his wife, a bishop, a soldier, a policeman and an escaped POW. These characters would have struck chords of recognition amongst those audiences but instead of reading about them or dealing with them, they were invited to laugh at them and not take them as seriously as they had to in real life. It must have been quite a relief.

And so, as I imagined people flocking to get even just a hint of laughter in otherwise dark days I felt a pang of guilt in finding it less funny than the more in your face comedy that I am used to. I began to be charmed by it and admired it as a product of its time with affection rather than judging it against modern comedies.

Added to this nostalgic feeling was the fact that many of the parts were played by actors who have formerly appeared in some of our best-loved TV sit-coms and shows.

There was Hi-De-Hi’s Jeffrey Holland as the bumblingly innocent stand-in vicar Arthur Humphrey, and Guy Siner who starred as Lt. Gruber in ‘Allo ‘Allo who played the escaped German POW and who drew a roar of laughter from the audience when one of his lines in this play was "Now, listen very carefully"! Then there was Michael Sharvell-Martin from No Place Like Home as the Bishop and Emmerdale's Frazer Hines.

Whatever you think of the subject matter, good farce needs good timing and physical agility and this cast certainly had those, especially in the second half. And if you love preposterous situations and nostalgic wartime farce, you'll love this portrayal of a preposterous situation in a nostalgic wartime farce!

It was basically an evening of inoffensive comedy, that made you yearn for the simple laughs we had in the 80s and also, when you thought about the context of when it was written, made you feel quite humble.

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