Review: Thark

3 star rating
Won't appeal to everyone in spite of the best efforts of director and cast because the script and plot really aren't in tune with our modern sense of humour.
Thark at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Image: Drayton Arms Theatre



Closes here: Saturday 6 January 2018

Author:
Ben Travers

Director:
Matthew Parker

Cast:

Hook - Daniel Casper

Warner/Jones - Sophia Lorenti

Lionel Frush - Alexander Hopwood

Mrs Frush - Ellie Gill

Sir Hector Benbow - Mathijs Swarte

Ronald Gamble - Robin Blell

Cherry Buck - Isabella Hayward

Lady Benbow - Charlotte Vassell

Kitty Stratton - Natalia Lewis

Whittle - Kieran Slade


Synopsis


"Ghosts - bunkum! Have you ever met anyone who's seen a ghost?"


"No; but I've never met anyone who hasn't met someone who has ..."


London, 1927.


The rebellious twenties are roaring right outside Sir Hector Benbow's Mayfair window.


All he wants to do is to take Cherry a 'good looker', out for a spot of dinner.


His saucy liaison is scuppered when Lady Benbow and his ward Kitty arrive home unexpectedly.


What's more, there are reports that Thark - the family home - is haunted!


Hector, his plucky nephew Ronny, and the rest of the family set out to investigate.


Will Thark live up to its spine-chilling reputation?


Fast-paced, fruity and full of flappers, Ben Travers' Thark is a hilarious classic British farce combining sparkling witticisms and bold physical comedy with glamour, naughty romps and a hint of gothic spookery!


Background


This new production is directed by Off West End Award winning director Matthew Parker.

ActDrop reviews


Peter Brown

Performance date: Thursday 14 December 2017
Review star rating image for 3 stars

First, a confession - I'm not a great fan of farce.


At least, I'm not a fan of farce from the distant days of the early part of the last century and Thark is one of those contrivances.


I suppose my issue about the genre is that it conjures images of men losing their trousers at the slightest excuse and people endlessly and laboriously going in and out of doors.


No-one actually loses their trousers in Thark, but there are several doors to utilise in Granville Saxton's effective and inventive set design.


There are, of course, different varieties of farce, some of which appeal to my sense of humour more than others.


A case in point is the Park Theatre's recent glorious revival of Joe Orton's Loot, which is a horse of a very different colour, and still very funny even some 50 years after it was written.


Thark started out life as the fourth in a series of twelve of the genre presented at the Aldwych Theatre between 1923 and 1933 - almost all of them written by Ben Travers.


Subsequently, it was turned into a film and has had several outings on the BBC over the years.


It was revived in 2013 (also at the Park Theatre) where it earned a 4 star rating from the Guardian's Michael Billington who, when asked if the play was still relevant said it was as "gloriously and sublimely irrelevant as it ever was".


That gives you a pretty good clue as to the nature and style of the play.


Back in its opening year, though, Thark earned somewhat mixed reviews with The Times describing it as "too unsubstantial to be wholly satisfactory" though it was "full of entertaining fragments".


In terms of Ben Travers' concept, I think I'd opt to side with the latter viewpoint.


Reviewing the original, the Daily Express was generous in its praise saying it "made even a sophisticated audience laugh until it cried".


Even allowing for exaggeration, The Express might have latched-on to the overall mood generated by the play at the time, since it went on to run for almost a year.


I didn't notice anyone crying in helpless hilarity during this revival, though there was plenty of laughter at the antics on offer.


Of course, times and attitudes to comedy have changed substantially over the intervening years since Thark was first aired, and some of the basic elements in the piece now seem to be out of step with society in general - especially in terms of attitudes towards women.


That begs the question as to whether Thark (and others of its ilk) are worth reviving in the first place.


In spite of my rather negative attitude to farce, I think the answer has to be "yes" because this play is a part of our theatrical heritage and it's also interesting to see how a play written in a very different (and highly restrictive) era is received by modern audiences.


And this revival, meticulously directed by Matthew Parker, certainly remains faithful to the playwright's intentions, milking the comedy wherever possible in that highly exaggerated, and risible style that is quintessentially farce.

Thark at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Photo by lhphotoshots

Though I didn't manage to see the 2013 revival at the Park Theatre, it reportedly used some judicious editing to bring the text up to date, whereas in this version Ben Traver's text largely seems in tact.


That poses some issues for the audience who have to cope with vocabulary that now seems unusual, if not downright odd, though some of it provides comic lines that weren't necessarily anticipated by the playwright.


The plot first develops at the Mayfair home of Hector Benbow, who appears to regard marital fidelity as not applying to him since he has invited a vivacious shop girl to his home for a romantic dinner while his wife is away.


But when Mrs Frush fetches up to complain about 'Thark' - a house she has just bought from Benbow - she also gets inadvertently invited to dinner.


And then Lady Benbow unexpectedly returns, forcing Benbow to enlist the aid of his nephew, Ronnie Gamble, to cover his tracks but in the process jeopardising Ronnie's relationship with his fiancée, Kitty.

Thark at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Photo by lhphotoshots


It's only in the second half where we fetch up at the house that provides the title for the play, a supposedly haunted pile - overseen by an oddly sinister, one-eyed housekeeper called Jones, whose real name is 'Death' - in which the protagonists must spend a fraught night attempting to prove that the house is not infested with ghouls and ghosts.


One of the most noticeable features of this revival is painstakingly-developed, spot-on timing.


For example, there's a cleverly-worked scene where Daniel Casper's butler, Hook, carries a drinks tray laden with glasses and bottles through a crowded room while other characters are milling around him.


And Sophia Lorenti's housekeeper demonstrates how far you can milk laughs from a mere 'look' when she's leaving the dining room and casts glowering glances at the terrified occupants - just as you think the joke has trailed-off she gives yet another glance and gets yet another laugh.


The principal male characters, Mathijs Swarte's ill-mannered, libertine Benbow and Robin Blell's well-played, quirkily mesmerising Ronnie, are complete 'rotters' who treat women with appalling contempt.


But even though the women are obviously second-class citizens in this society, they nonetheless are clearly aware of their menfolks' failings and foibles, and are not duped by their pitifully childish, scheming ways.


There's good work from all the cast of ten, including Alexander Hopwood's extraordinarily camp Lionel Flush, attired with a booming striped jacket and dainty straw hat, who seems to want to collect as many "gals" as he can muster because he "gets lonely".


Having seen a couple of pantos recently, it strikes me that this is certainly the appropriate time of year for Thark to get another airing, since it contains much the same mix of overblown, silly characters and ridiculous plot that many modern pantos incorporate, and which theatregoers are more likely to warm to in the festive period.


Although Matthew Parker directs here with a fastidious diligence that clearly demonstrates a love of the genre, I didn't laugh particularly often or particularly loud during the show - confirming my totally subjective prejudices, I suppose.


My neighbour in the next seat, though, told me at the interval that she was enjoying it immensely, and the enterprise did seem to engage the audience and successfully elicit more than sufficient laughter.


However, I suspect this won't appeal to everyone in spite of the best efforts of director and cast because the script and plot aren't in tune with our modern sense of humour, and even the well-crafted visual gags are really not enough to compensate.



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