Some stage comedies are eased along with a nudge and a wink. Christopher Luscombe revives Pinero’s 1887 farce hit “Dandy Dick” with a shove of a sharp elbow. That’s a wise move since without bold, out-front playing, the amusing confection would be revealed as the dated and deflated nonsense that it otherwise is. The evening is seriously short on subtlety but, depending on your degree of indulgence, it’s something of an old-fashioned guilty pleasure.
Obeying farce law, Pinero sets up high-stakes jeopardy via an immensely contrived set of circumstances conspiring to put the Very Reverend Augustin “Gus” Jedd (wonderfully gruff Nicholas Le Prevost) in a spiraling set of incriminating positions. What’s at stake? His dignity — “that priceless possession of man’s middle age.”
Although he’s a pillar of the community with an unbesmirched reputation living comfortably at the Deanery, his funds are low. That doesn’t go down well with his wannabe disobedient daughters, who have run up ghastly bills with dressmakers for making them fancy-dress costumes to wear to a ball which they’re not supposed to be attending.
Making matters worse, Gus is trapped into raising an unimaginable sum to fix the church spire. Unexpected help arrives via the convenient reappearance after 20 years’ estrangement of his horse-mad sister Georgiana (whip-cracking Patricia Hodge). Her horse Dandy Dick is all set to win the local race. Will Gus go against his beliefs and risk his reputation by secretly backing the horse courtesy of his conniving butler Blore (John Arthur)? Yes. Will everything go according to plan? Oh, no.
Filleting the text down to a playing time well under two hours, Luscombe make the action notably trim. Within that framework, his cast take instantly recognizable stock characters — doltish suitors, dim policeman, big-hearted cook — and add considerable relish. Knowing asides are knocked out to the audience as if with croquet mallets and tense curtain-lines are underlined by melodramatic poses.
Le Prevost holds everything together with a performance ideally torn between desperation and chin-jutting defiance. He’s matched by a bombastic Hodge who enters briskly through the French doors of Janet Bird’s rigorously naturalistic vicarage set and promptly takes charge.
Considering just how ludicrous the situation grows, suspension of disbelief should be stretched to breaking point. However, the good-natured comedy conjured up by this nicely knowing skewering of stereotypes keeps things afloat.
That much is clear from Florence Andrews and Jennifer Rhodes as Salome and Sheba, eminently marriageable daughters who both consider abrupt, simultaneous proposals of marriage. A scintilla of tension arises, causing Sheba to confess to her sister, “If I should pine away and ultimately die of suspense, I should like you to have my workbox.”
The presence of reliable theater names Le Prevost and Hodge should bolster the tour of this inaugural outing by Ambassador Theater Group’s newly formed Theatre Royal Brighton Prods. Audiences happy to swap their brain at the door for the creaky joys of old-fashioned amusement will get their money’s worth. But the ultimate aim is for a West End berth. There, considerably higher prices may curdle the good-humor.