Wilton’s Music Hall has the distinction of being the only surviving original music hall in London. Tucked away down an unassuming pedestrian side street near St Katharine’s Dock, it has been quietly mouldering away for years; its once glorious covings and cornices crumbling away, its vivid paintwork fading to grey. However, it was not forgotten; a mighty repair project was launched last year to get Wilton’s back on its cultural feet and the great hall, with its air of dilapidated, nostalgic elegance, is now open for business.
What better backdrop for the European Arts Company’s production of The Four Farces, a quartet of Victorian comic vignettes? Director Jonathan Kemp, Stage Manager Duncan Hands and Designer Tomasin Cuthbert have wisely made no attempt to modernise either set or script as the performances and humour transcend the intervening years admirably. The set is as basic as it can be for farce; largely two dimensional and rather wobbly, with just enough curtains to peek through and screens to erupt from behind. The lighting is simple and effective, always allowing the audience to remain aware of their historic surroundings, and the sound effects such as barking dogs and hissing bacon sound suspiciously human. The lack of concern for realism extends to the performance; the actors occasionally break character and at the end of each sketch, in the great tradition, address the audience with a little pleading epilogue, in one case even going so far as to criticise the author for not having written one for them. This period authenticity only serves to increase the already eerie sensation of having travelled back in time.
The plays themselves are an uproarious mix of bristling moustaches, mistaken identities, drunkenness, stripy bathing suits and cowardly duellists. We start the evening with the most famous of the four, Box and Cox by John Maddison Morton, a story of a hatter and a printer who discover that they share more than just a boarding room, and whose title has passed into British idiom. Richard Latham and John O’ Connor are polished and entertaining as the hatter and the printer respectively, while Asta Parry makes the grotesque best of her small role as the scheming landlady. This was followed by Wanted, A Young Lady by William E. Suter. A young reprobate, Frank (O’Connor) is driven to desperate measures and elaborate disguises in his pursuit of the Young Lady in question (Parry). He is un-ably assisted in his venture by his drunken servant (Latham). All three actors really come into their own in this play, and it is a shame that we practically lose Parry after the interval, in Maddison Morton’s A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, where we see O’ Connor, clad in a most alarming garment, attempt to drown himself in Latham’s fishpond. His rescue and subsequent exploits border on the surreal. In the final sketch, Duel In The Dark by Joseph Stirling Coyne, the three actors come together again with superbly comic results. We see Parry, as the redoubtable Mrs Greenfinch, plot with her maid Betty (Latham) to punish her philandering husband (O’ Connor) in a mad scheme involving mysterious French countesses, suspiciously short men and a duel, unsurprisingly, in the dark.
All four plays were met with cheerful hilarity and appreciation by the audience. The predictability of the jokes only made them all the funnier, the atmosphere was warm, family-friendly and jovial. There was an almost ‘Morecambe and Wise’ feel to the humour, except in A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion where the pure surrealism of the script was more Monty Python-esque. But what really brought the old creaking scripts to life were the performances. All three actors played with enthusiasm, verve and the perfect comedy timing so essential in a farce, but most importantly they seemed to be having a whale of a time doing it. Their joyful, unselfconscious ridiculousness was charming and infectious, and the dusty Victorian atmosphere so pervasive that it was rather a shock to be expelled, afterwards into 21st century London. An evening of lovely, happy escapism.
Review by Genni Trickett
Wednesday 19th June 2013