NOT EXACTLY SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST…
12 years ago John Darwin paddled out into the North Sea, faking his death for the insurance. He and his wife – who hid him for a while in a secret room – were jailed after a photo showed them both grinning on a Panamanian property website. Mike Yeaman, in his author’s note, blithely says here that “any similarities to persons living or pretending to be dead are entirely coincidental”, and pulls the action from Teesside to Liverpool to generate maximum Scouse domestic energy. What red-blooded farceur could resist the melodramatic incompetence of it?
To his credit, he does not dodge the awkward fact that the real couple, with incredible callousness, let their sons grieve. He gives his Frank and Beryl two adult children who provoke a hell of a showdown when, in a rundown Cuban hotel room in a hurricane, all is revealed as palm-trees, sunbeds, (and indeed a cow and a car ) hurtle past the shaking window. And nobody comes expecting heartbreaking moral messages to this, Liverpool’s newest producing-house: the riotously cheerful, plushly redecorated Royal Court (supper served on stalls tables, tickets down to £ 12 in the first few days of a run). It’s a lark, a night out, and the director is Cal McCrystal the physical-comedy master.
John McArdle dodders and blusters as the undrowned Frank, Pauline Fleming exerts panicked, steely generalship as Beryl, Angela Simms and Michael Ledwich are the kids, and Stephen Fletcher a semi-competent Merseyside policeman (failed dog-handler, got bitten; failed firearms officer, “couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo”). A dog’s puppet head-and shoulders cause crotch-level mayhem in the first act whenever the hidden Frank tries to scoot back to his freezing shed, the copper delivers the kayak and the daughter gets wedged in it with maximum awkwardness.
There are a few genuinely precious lines, like Beryl’s denial that she is “reconciled” to the drowning – “No, my husband always hated being looked at by fish. The aquarium at the dentist…”. But the biggest laughs, pure music-hall in their merriment, are for a classic drunk scene between Fletcher and Ledwich and its morning aftermath. This director knows exactly how to get an actor to fall off a sofa, and where to place an underclad policeman’s leg for maximum hilarity. And to prevent us feeling that we’re watching a giant telly sitcom (the cast are amped), two dismembered kebabs get thrown, with some force though apparently by accident, into the stalls. They are met with rapture.
After the interval we are in Cuba, and the very set gets a cheer, as does Ms Fleming in a leopard-print sarong and McArdle in preposterous hotpants. We’re well away, even before the addition of Harry Katsari as a Manuel-style official, several underbed-dives, panicked cross-purposes and that splendid hurricane. I can’t pretend that Yeaman’s plotting is of classic farce intricacy, but the physical work is glorious. And since we have been made aware of theatrical effort during the dog-head interventions and thrashing palm-tree moments, the dancing curtain-call is fleetingly joined by two stagehands apparently in their underwear. And we all cheer again. Hurrah.
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http://www.royalcourtliverpool.com to 28 Feb
Rating: it would be three but add one comedy-mouse for McCrystal.