The Duck House can’t decide if it wants to be a satire, a farce, or both, and is consequently frustrating. Ben Miller is fun as Labour MP Robert Houston, who is planning to defect to the Tories just as the expenses scandal breaks. He and his wife, Felicity, sit quaffing champagne (keep the receipt) while their Russian housekeeper tidies around them, waiting for a call from Tory “pitbull” Sir Norman (Simon Shepherd), who will co-ordinate the announcement of his move.
The plot hinges on the fact that this move, and potential cabinet post, is contingent on his expenses claims being in order. Of course, Houston has claimed every which way, flipped his main residence and generally sponged off the tax payer at every opportunity. The humour comes from his increasingly farcical attempts to hide these claims from Sir Norman. Cue much running around, shouting, and hiding things in the broom cupboard.
There are some genuinely funny moments. The eponymous duck house is brought into the lounge, complete with resident duck. The physical comedy is amusing, too, although some gags are stretched too thin. The problem is that it’s all terribly heavy-handed. The characters are stereotypes, from the ambitious politician and his snobby wife, to their lazily revolutionary student son, and the old-school Tory with a secret penchant for being spanked with the Lisbon Treaty. Yes, there is a lot of running in and out of rooms, slamming doors and dropped trousers, but it all feels too predictable to be really funny.
We’re expected to find Houston and his ilk repellant, of course, but it feels rather smug. The giggles are too knowing, too cosy. Jokes about Andrew Mitchell (“mild-mannered chap, he rides a bike”) and Nick Clegg feel well-worn, and there’s little in the way of biting satire. The script, too, is often leaden: Houston confronts his son’s acupunturist fiancee with “Oh, where did you study that, the university of bollocks?”
Debbie Chazen, complete with comedy Russian accent, is amusing as the Houston’s cleaner, Ludmilla, providing much of the physical comedy. Nancy Carroll is enjoyable as Felicity Houston, and Ben Miller makes the most of his one-liners. It’s well-acted across the board, in fact, it’s just a shame that the script lacks real spark. Dan Patterson and Colin Swash, who between them have written for Mock The Week, Private Eye and Have I Got News For You, have great satirical credentials. Stretched to two hours, though, and the jokes wear thin.
The Duck House is currently playing at the Vaudeville Theatre. For more information and tickets visit the Vaudeville’s website.