You would have thought that by now, the word ‘farce’ would have firmly established itself as an insult. The embarrassingly British, post-war style of performance known for rude characters who dropped their trousers as casually as their xenophobic remarks has been assaulting our theatres since the 1950s, when it was a mode of entertainment that sold as easily as smutty postcards at a seaside resort.
John Roy Chapman’s Dry Rot ticks all the boxes of this teeth-grindingly awful genre; it has rude patriarchal figures, banal members of the working class, women forever busy with housework and flirting, implausible villains and jokes about the French. Indeed, this production embraces its very offensiveness to the point that – at the risk of being quoted on a poster – we can deem it an exquisitely accomplished farce.
The plot here centres around a grand country guest house, which is reluctantly managed by the Wagstaff family and maintained, haphazardly, by a clumsy and common housekeeper called Beth. True to the genre, the plot is utterly implausible, and concerns some botched horse-racing fix where the baddies get shamed, the French finally get arrested and the ordinary people return to their ordinary lives.
In the middle of this dismal affair, there are two features that prevent the work from teetering into the joyless. Firstly, Duncan Parker’s set design, with its stag’s head and balustrade, provides a relative convincing foundation from which to launch the hopelessly far-fetched acting. Alongside this, Evelyn Adams makes an admirable attempt to depict the young Susan Wagstaff, yet her measured and expressive enthusiasm seems imprisoned within a role that only demands flirty ditziness.
Penned by Chapman as an original Whitehall farce, the text was awkward and boastful. At times it felt as if the scriptwriter was desperately proving that he was refined enough to know the patterns of rhyme and homophony that occur between ‘valet’, ‘valley’ and ‘ballet’. This painfully dated mood of self-important haughtiness was reinforced by the two references to Shakespeare, which were clumsily implanted in the first twenty minutes. At many points, lines were delivered with a degree of inflated apology as the actors seemed almost irritated by the weak jokes that Chapman’s script forced them to make. On top of this, and as if instructed to ensure our faces remained in mid-wince throughout the production, Mike Robertson’s lighting design flicked from shady to over-bright with such cartoonish contrast it was physically uncomfortable to watch.
So loyal it is to the nature of farce, it seems almost unfair to criticise Dry Rot – after all, what can we expect from a piece that starts with a middle-aged colonel knotting his tie while calling out for his prim and floral-print clad wife? Yet it is certainly necessary to evaluate such works, as to appreciate a piece like this is to celebrate a form of theatre that keeps us unironically trapped in a suffocating and judgemental world, where a man kissing a man can be nothing more than titillation, foreigners and the poor have been put on this earth simply to be ridiculed and women exist to coyly giggle before resigning themselves to a life of pouring tea. Even if we forgive the quirks of the genre, if we accept works that make anyone other than the stereotypical theatre audience the butt of cruel jokes, we reach the point where nostalgia begins to stifle progress. Forget a storyline of fraud and deceit; the stereotypical portrayals here are the real criminals.
Dry Rot is performing at Richmond Theatre until 21st July. For more information and tickets, see the Richmond Theatre website.