Embarrassed at being caught singing and playing imaginary ukeleles — who wouldn’t be? — Gerald Popkiss and cousin Clive snap the offending nonexistent instruments across their knees. That so arrantly preposterous a piece of stage business wins a big laugh is testament to the potency of tip-top farce-playing. Helmer Terry Johnson finds opportunities galore for such delicious hijinks in Ben Travers’ 1926 genre classic, “Rookery Nook.” But his production highs, alas, also allow audiences to notice the writing’s lows.
Newlywed Gerald (a beaming Neil Stuke) has arrived to stay at the eponymous holiday cottage, presided over not only by a harridan of a housekeeper, Mrs. Leverett (Lynda Baron), but worse, by his sister-in-law Gertrude, a magnificently scolding Sarah Woodward as the kind of woman who would give Lady Bracknell pause.
After Gerald has gotten rid of everyone for the night, imagine his horror — and ill-disguised delight — when an excessively pretty girl turns up in nothing but silk pajamas, demanding to be rescued from her tyrannical German stepfather. So compromising a scenario must be kept secret at all costs. All would be fine were it not for nosy neighbors, dastardly friends, fearful relatives and impending wives.
Tim Shortall’s sweet, half-timbered, country-cottage set obeys the first law of farce: Make sure you’ve got solid doors. With everyone slamming them as they race in and out of hiding, it’s instantly clear that if the set wobbles, so will the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Audiences will swallow the most absurd contrivances so long as the stakes remain high and the action taut. And the best playing in the first two of the play’s three scenes allows that to happen. But as the evening progresses, doubts creep in and tension slackens.
Part of the problem is structural. Johnson removes the second intermission and runs the second and third acts together in an attempt to drive the comedy onward, but the play keeps letting air out of the balloon. This means the actors have to keep refilling it and audiences have to rekindle their enthusiasm.
Travers delays the arrival of the crucial character of Gerald’s wife Clara (Clare Wilkie) until perilously close to the end. And he blurs her entrance by adding yet another hitherto unseen character, her mother. More defined acting in both these roles would help but, in their defense, the cast members have a tough job. Because we suddenly have to get to know new characters, the dramatic temperature plummets just as everything should be climaxing.
The lack of precision is made more noticeable by the sheer elan of the best performances.
Despite the galloping desperation of his situation, Stuke’s Gerald shimmers with attractive ease. His clarity of thought is matched by a physical lightness of touch — blissfully smoking a match while absently tossing away the cigarette, or trying to disguise the golf club he has hidden down his trousers — don’t ask.
He’s balanced by Mark Hadfield’s doltish, long-suffering Harold. Henpecked into complete submission, eyes-wide Hadfield seems permanently inches away from tears. He’s a perfect foil to Edward Baker-Duly’s lascivious Clive, a delicious cross between a Wodehousian dandy and Roger Moore. There’s also a terrific late cameo from Victoria Yeates as a saucy local girl with an eye on the main chance.
Ultimately, however, Johnson’s direction doesn’t allow these performances to gel. He’s stronger on the mechanics, choreographing the finales to each act with impressive precision and even winning escalating laughs from the unseen presence of offstage animals. But great farce — “See How They Run,” “Boeing-Boeing” or “Noises Off” — breeds exuberant joy because the plays lassoo audiences and never let them go. “Rookery Nook” has undeniable pleasures, but they are intermittent.