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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Menier Chocolate Factory


  Kellie Shirley and Edward Baker-Duly/Ph: Catherine Ashmore

There was a time - how long ago it seems! - when drama critics would expatiate ecstatically on the two Rare Bens in English drama: Ben Jonson and Ben Travers. Both were masters of farce with words galore, though the Travers lexicon is more limited and more strictly functional - as an aid to physical action and distress - than was that of Shakespeare's champion.

Ben Travers died in 1980 having enjoyed a renaissance in his last decade similar to that of Noel Coward in the 1960s. This very play, Rookery Nook (1926), which belongs to his famous series of Aldwych farces (they played mostly at the Aldwych) between 1925 and 1933, was jollied up for a 1972 musical Popkiss, not a hit, admittedly, but a reminder.

The Royal Court had presented an Anthony Page revival of A Cuckoo in the Nest in 1964 (the cast included Alan Bennett, John Osborne and Nicol Williamson), but the real landmark was Michael Blakemore's glorious National Theatre version of Plunder in 1976 at the Old Vic (it survived in the repertoire in the new building), quickly followed by Lindsay Anderson's West End production of a brand new play, The Bed Before Yesterday (starring Joan Plowright and Helen Mirren), which revelled in the kind of moral liberties unavailable to Travers in his prime.

Terry Johnson's Menier revival of Rookery Nook - exhumation would be the wrong word after London sightings in 1986 and 1991, and a well-received touring production by Dominic Dromgoole in 2005 - could be seen as a bid to unlock the slightly discredited genre of traditional farce in the same way as Matthew Warchus did with last season's Boeing-Boeing.

He does not quite achieve the same level of persuasive theatrical argument, and I'd be surprised if this show followed the path of recent Menier triumphs like A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles (also directed by Johnson) and Little Shop of Horrors onto Shaftesbury Avenue.

But this is still a refreshing and high-spirited dust-down of some silly goings-on in a Somerset village retreat (cosily, and efficiently designed by Tim Shortall) when a pretty ingenue, Rhoda Marley, takes refuge with a pair of country cousins, Gerald and Clive Popkiss, pursued by a tyrannical step-father, Putz, and his vicious dog.

Why Putz should be pursuing a girl he has expelled for eating "wurts" is shrouded in mystery, as is the meaning of "wurts." Anyway, Rhoda's short of clothes, and Gerald obliges with his pyjamas, cueing instant arrival of his recently acquired wife Clara, her mother, and the general disapproval, necessitating evasive action, of a mountainous housemaid and a battle-axe neighbour, Gertrude Twine. There's a squealing cat in the kitchen, too.

Neil Stuke and Edward Baker-Duly ham it up judiciously as Gerald and Clive, the first very fleshy and sweaty, the second cool, slender and raffish, which rather reverses the comic personae (or what I've read of them) of Ralph Lynn and Tom Walls who first played these roles.

Their shared object of desire, Rhoda, is prettily done by Kellie Shirley, batting her eyelids and curling her toes like a practised siren, and there's some heavyweight stomping about by Nick Brimble as the German and Lynda Baron as the housemaid. But all the hectic hiding in cupboards never translates into farcical delirium, despite the best efforts of Victoria Yeates as a passing charity flag seller who gets sucked into the mayhem in exchange for shedding her clothes, which she does with a rush of joy.

Robertson Hare was the third famous farceur in the Aldwych series, and his brand of hen-pecked, helpless innocence is beautifully evoked by RSC vet


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