Thark has earned the dubious accolade of being the play at which I have sustained the most bruises. It’s a rip-roaring adaptation of Ben Travers’s 1920s farce, which relies on exaggerated physical humour for a lot of its impact. Butlers career on and off the stage whilst country gents scurry about trying to placate their jealous wives — this is true slapstick territory. If you’re sat in the aisles there’s perhaps a little too much slap in the balance, having been on the receiving end of many a flailing limb. And this rather sums up the production as a whole. There’s much about it which is delightful and charming in its absurdity. But these elements are overpowered by comedy that is too obvious, and holes in the script that left the chaos that underlies the play rising to the surface a little too often.
Currently running at the Michael Pilch studio, Thark follows the exploits of a one Sir Hector Benbow as he muddles through his daily affairs. Having had a liaison with a shop-girl interrupted by the early return of his wife, he and his hapless nephew Ronnie get themselves into all kinds of scrapes as Hector tries to cover up his misdemeanours, culminating in a group gathering at the allegedly haunted family home, Thark.
Originally written as one in the series of twelve Aldwych farces, for performance at the Aldwych Theatre in London, Thark inhabits the same potty world as the novels of Travers’s more famous contemporary, P. G. Wodehouse. There are some delightful one-liners, but the writing just doesn’t have the same sparkle as Wodehouse. To be entertained by a farcical universe, I need to be convinced that the implausible chain of events is in some senses unavoidable. Unfortunately, Clive Francis’s adaptation did not take the opportunity to plug some of the more obvious gaps in the text. When Ronnie fetches the shop-girl, Cherry Buck, to explain to his fiancée that they are not having an affair, she arrives right on cue. Inexplicably, at this stage Ronnie accuses the butler of ruining his plan and he and his fiancée begin to argue, leaving Cherry standing awkwardly on the stage. She is seemingly precisely where Ronnie needs her, but the script entirely ignores this, leaving the plot tripping rather than trotting along.
Within the maelstrom of conspicuous innuendoes (such as Hector asking Ronnie ‘Fancy a quickie to help rock you off?’, which I’m fairly certain must be a modern insertion), Barney Shekleton delivered an outstanding performance as Ronnie. He was helped by having some of the better lines in the play (and one of the more likeable characters), but his general affability and comic timing were astutely judged and executed. He was complemented by George Fforde as the sinister butler Jones/Death, between them cementing the two halves of the play together. Adam Diaper was beautifully cast as the pompous Sir Hector, and Ryan Lea put in a solid supporting performance as the romantically hopeless Lionel Frush (who bore a striking resemblance to a newtless Fink-Nottle).
The decision to stage in the Michael Pilch studio was in some ways an excellent one. The small space, staged in the round, emphasised the physicality of the humour in a way that would have been far less effective in a proscenium setting. Disorder spilled over into complete mayhem as the stage filled with both characters and props, spatialising the bedlam of Hector’s marital affairs. Nonetheless the stage could have profited from being a little larger, as it was just a bit too cramped for the actors to be able to move properly. With the spacing of their performances hindered, they often accidentally involved the audience a little too forcefully in their pantomimic antics. Chris Page’s stage design was thankfully minimal, providing a few well-placed props that were used only where necessary, serving as prompts for the verbal comedy. The score, composed and performed by Rémy Oudemans, was similarly uncluttered, with a subtle lightness that the script might have benefitted from imitating.
Thark has all the elements needed for a great 1920s farce: it’s frivolous, jovial, and joyously irrelevant. To work as a 21st century comedy, however, I felt like it wanted something extra. The humour needed to be a little sharper, the innuendo less blatant, the loose ends more neatly tied. Otherwise, the script remains a little like Ronnie’s sardonic description of flowers: “Yes, you know, colourful and gay at the top and peter off to nothing at the bottom.”
‘Thark’ runs at the Michael Pilch studio until the 6th February. For more information and to book tickets, please visit Poltergeist Theatre’s Facebook page.