The glory of great farce — and Philip King’s “See How They Run” is arguably the greatest of the much-maligned genre — is that its seemingly preposterous theatricality is totally brazen. Ever more ridiculous plot contrivances bring you slap-bang up against your suspension of disbelief, only to twist the comedy screws even tighter. You’re constantly being dared to question the whole shebang, as if to say, “You’ve believed all this arrant nonsense so far, how about one more leap toward insanity?” Watching Douglas Hodge’s triumphant production through tears of joy, the answer is a defiant “Yes!”
It’s no surprise that this 1945 play is Michael Frayn’s favorite. Not only is it dizzyingly well-confected — comedy playwrighting as precision engineering — it is also quintessentially English. We’re back in the far-off days of a permanently sunny afternoon during World War II in the sleepy village of Merton-cum-Middlewick and, like P.G. Wodehouse but faster, the plot is propelled by readily recognizable, well-loved comedy staples.
There’s peevish village spinster Miss Skillon, cockney maid Ida, a dim sergeant of the local regiment on the hunt for an escaped German, and more clerics than you can shake a stick at. At the height of the mistaken-identity insanity, five people are dressed as members of the cloth, leading the enraged Bishop of Lax (stentorian Tim Piggot Smith) to cry, “Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars!”
Things never would have reached this pitch had it not been for the other two characters. They’re what used to be known as “arty” types … and we know that sort of person always spells trouble.
First off there’s Penelope, played by coltish Nancy Carroll like a glowingly young and English Katharine Hepburn. She has put Miss Skillon’s nose out of joint by (a) marrying Rev. Lionel Toop (Nicholas Rowe), (b) wearing trousers and (c) interfering with Miss Skillon’s floral arangements in Lionel’s church. To make matters considerably worse, although she is the bishop’s niece, in a former life Penelope was — horrors! — an actress.
And who should turn up out of the blue while Lionel is away deputizing for the pianist in a local concert? Only devilish, dashing Lance Corporal Clive Winton (a marvelously exuberant Jo Stone-Fewings) who, before joining the army, was an actor touring the country for 43½ weeks playing Elyot to Penelope’s Amanda in “Private Lives.”
Penelope persuades Clive to sneak off for a night to the local amateur dramatics, which means abandoning his uniform and dressing up as a vicar. “I don’t like it,” he says beadily. “I’ve played in too many plays where characters have done this sort of thing and something’s always gone wrong.”A laugh of gleeful recognition indicates the feeling that the audience is not only up to speed but feeling they are in extremely safe hands.
They’re not wrong. Hodge is a leading British stage and screen actor (currently playing the title role in “Titus Andronicus” at the Globe) with only two legit directing gigs under his belt, but his razor-sharp West End directorial debut is paced and placed to perfection.
Tim Shortall’s box set that time forgot is ideally old-fashioned, right down to the solid wooden doors, wallpapered walls and curtained French windows leading out onto a verdant garden backdrop. That, of course, is perfect for rushing in and out, which Hodge’s crack cast does at every opportunity with the exception of Julie Legrand’s Miss Skillon, who has had so much cooking sherry that she winds up draped over a coatpeg in a cupboard.
Natalie Grady, fresh out of drama school, is alternately censorious, feisty, lovestruck, poleaxed and bizarrely funny as cockney Ida. She has the true comedian’s gift for being able to stretch time.
The highpoint is the glass of whiskey sequence. In the midst of the lunacy, Penelope pours visiting vicar Humphrey (Nicholas Blane, an utterly endearing, quivering mountain of confusion) a restorative drink. Clive rushes past, grabs the drink and leaves Penelope distractedly handing a mimed glass to Humphrey. Completely baffled, he knocks back the nonexistent drink to humor her. The audience roars. Pleased with himself, he politely asks for another and brings the house down.
The production may be mad comedy, but it’s also serious ensemble playing of a very high order. This team combines the farce essential of alert but relaxed military precision with a gleeful relish for expert comedy business that makes auds giddy with hysterics. This is the funniest show in town, and it deserves to run forever.