This Terence Rattigan play – written and set during World War 2 – is about the absurdity of Great Britain’s rigid rules / roles (i.e. gender, sex, class, nationality) in the face of a series of wider crises.
As with all farces, its deliberate use of heightened tone and sense of escalating desperation prods at accepted social norms in a dual way: firstly, it signposts – for both its characters and audience – a set of absolute moral, ethical, cultural and behavioral guidelines; after which, it subverts them by making the characters fluid in both their attachments to these rules, and with each-other.
One can see where the ‘Carry on’ franchise, many 70s sitcoms, and (more pertinently) the recent ‘Allo, allo’ series derived their tones from.
The main plot concerns The Earl Of Harpenden’s (Philip Labey) imminent wedding to Lady Elisabeth Randall (Sabrina Bartlett), his resulting desire to extricate himself from on-off ‘dalliance’ Mabel Crum (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and his non-preparations for a career interview with the Royal Navy.
Myer-Bennett’s Crumb’s portrayal of privileged vacuity is a laugh-out-loud joy
This last plot point – alongside the role played by would-be father-n-law Duke of Ayr & Stirling (Michael Lumsden) – reinforces the distinction between the titled aristocracy’s implied importance within society, and their incompetence when managing their own affairs, or when undertaking military or community service.
In short, all three titled characters are portrayed as blithering idiots, with only the ‘sexually liberated’ Miss Crumb possessing sufficient self-awareness to rise above her allotted station.
Also in the mix are American G.I. Lieutenant Mulvaney (Julian Moore-Cook) and French Lieutenant Colbert (Jordan Mifsud) – both of whom are accidentally drawn into the shenanigans (and into the Earl’s bed) – as well as Butler Horton (John Hudson). The first three characters are used as commentators/provocateurs, while the butler’s very lack of a shared opinion – whilst nervously ‘crossing his fingers’ on the sidelines – is used as a commentary on the self-defeating tactic of blind acquiescence.
The performances are uniformly good, especially Labey’s Harpenden and Myer-Bennett’s Crumb. His portrayal of privileged vacuity is a laugh-out-loud joy, while her presentation of the ‘tart with a heart’ trope is worldly, wise, warm, witty and – eventually – quite moving.
Director Paul Miller keeps things suitably light and breezy, while Simon Daw’s Design – working in tandem with Mark Doubleday’s Lighting – utilises the limited space superbly.
Farce – and its less populist artistic cousin, satire – are generally most effective when the accepted set of orthodoxies are perceived to be threatened by extreme circumstances, either inside society (e.g. foreignors, Brexit, corrupt and incompetent leaders, etc,), or just beyond its borders (e.g. Foreignors, fascists, corrupt and incompetent leaders, etc,). This, presumably, is why the play has been revived.
Arguably, not since WW2 has the United Kingdom been so dis-united. Certainly, the (French) disdain and (American) incredulity with which The Earl of Harpenden is viewed by his ‘allies’/ competitors seems strangely familiar; that they both still seem quite willing to ‘get into bed’ with him – despite (or because of) his apparent stupidity – also feels close to the ‘current bone’.
Furthermore, the absurdity with which we view our archaic (homo) sexual politics is also subtly commented upon here.
In fact, many such connections could be made regarding several character-beats and plot points (e.g. a selfish, conservative elder gambling away the future without fear of consequence; a subservient underclass blindly believing that any decisions made by ‘those above’ will trickle down effectively.
As Terence Rattigan realised, when he wrote this during World War 2, at the worst of times, the best that one can do is to laugh.
This farce – which still has much to say – is as good a place as any to practice.