Review by Dave Stringer
The Stoke-on-Trent Repertory Theatre Company continues its season with Dry Rot – rated one of the best of British farces,
Written by John Chapman – who went on to write several successful comedy series for the small screen including The Liver Birds, Happy Ever After and Fresh Fields – Dry Rot itself was made into a film in 1954 starring the likes of Sid James and Peggy Mount after becoming a long-running part of the famous Whitehall farces.
The play is set in a dilapidated country house suffering – would you believe – from dry rot and run as a very unsuccessful hotel by a couple who have just returned from India. Their first guests are a group of would-be conmen who aim to make a fortune by fixing the big race at the nearby race track by hiding a horse in a local cellar.
This may be a flimsy and rather implausible plotline but if, like the audience on the opening night, you are prepared to open your mind to the whole silliness, then you will find yourself hilariously entertained by a very enthusiastic cast.
There are elements which are ever-present to traditional farce and this direction by Brian Rawlins remains faithful to the genre by ticking every box. Hidden panels, multiple exits, dropped trousers, a Frenchman who can speak no English, moaning servants and mooning lovers all abound. And congratulations to the Creative team whose set and costumes put the audience straight into the period.
Keith Minshull and Doris Wagstaff are well cast as the irascible Colonel Henry Wagstaff and his battle-axe wife Doris. Henry is clearly not set out to be a hotelier but is played sympathetically by Keith who, along with Chris, does well to set the scene and draw the audience slowly into the disaster that is about to come.
An early sign of the future mayhem is portrayed by the incompetent employee Beth who is soon smashing crockery off-stage. Lauren Haynes throws herself into her part with gusto leaving daughter Susan (Holly Sanders) as apparently the only member of the household with any grasp of reality.
Holly is key to the romantic sub-plot as she falls for John Danby (James King) and they are convincing as potential lovers who would take their romance further if they were not surrounded by chaos.
But the play really comes to life with the arrival of the conmen Alfred Tubbe (James Lawton), Fred Phipps (Richard Morrey) and Flash Harry (Steve Powell) alongside jockey Albert Polignac (Simon Bland).
Lawton and Morrey form an excellent double act that would match even the likes of Laurel and Hardy and they are ably supported by Powell. Like every good comedy partnership, the Rep players appear to have a mutual respect for each other and seem to enjoy working together.
Bland puts on an impressive show as a shoulder-shrugging Frenchman and the cast is completed by Gill Plant. She has the cameo role of Sergeant Fire – not a good name when there is a firearm in the house!! – and is very credible as the easily-shocked member of the local constabulary.
Some of the one-liners have not necessarily stood the test of time but the knockabout fun brings genuine belly-laughs. In general, the cast play their roles with just the right amount of over-exaggeration and there are some genuinely side-splitting scenes – the search for dry rot that causes total mayhem, characters falling foul of the dry rot on the stairs and Tubbe attempting to teach Phipps how to mount a horse and how to speak French.
The Whitehall Farces may be more than sixty years old but the Rep has shown that they can still provide great entertainment to the modern audience. Get along if you can.
The play has a running time of approximately 135 minutes including interval and continues until Saturday April 13th.
Tickets are available by ringing 01782 209784