The vast majority of the comedy, not just about the expenses matter but taking in passing shots at pretty much every other political “outrage” of recent years, is lazier even than a dedicated couch potato. And satire that does not challenge ends up implicitly reinforcing the values in question, and that makes this not just poor theatre but also pernicious politics.
A complete farce of a farce that feels like Ayckbourn on acid
It’s been quite a year once again for the Vaudeville Theatre, as the revolving door of comedies continues to spin. This time however there has been much anticipation over a new comedy to light up the Strand, and one that also pokes fun at MP’s. The Duck House is set on the eve of the 2009 expenses scandal, which saw MP’s from all parties embroiled in a witch hunt to find the most ridiculous item claimed in expenses and ultimately paid for by us, the tax payer. It was like a twisted version of ‘The Generation Game’ wherein public money was being thrown at hanging baskets, massage chairs, second homes and even (as the title suggests) duck houses.
From the outset this play was given every chance to succeed. The topic is certainly one people enjoy laughing at, and on the whole it was well acted, but the script and direction felt lazy. Political dramatic irony was overused for some cheap laughs (cue jokes about Chris Hume’s driving), and seemed unrelenting throughout the first act, quickly becoming tiresome. As the plot began to unfold, it became predictable and crude, and any sign of intelligent or satirical humour was abandoned in favour of ridiculous twists and under-rehearsed attempts at physical comedy.
We are introduced to Robert Houston as he is on the verge of switching political parties from failing Labour to Cameron’s rising Tories. He and his wife Felicity are about as likeable as Katie Hopkins, and they quickly fall into the ‘posh-champagne-socialist-Tory’ types that theatre audiences enjoy to see ridiculed. The only thing that stands in his way is a meeting with Sir Norman Cavendish (who ends us being an extreme fetishist) and Robert will be on cruise control to David’s cabinet, solving his son’s extreme gambling habit and cementing his family’s future. As the expenses scandal breaks, so does the news that he owns a duck house – paid for by the public.
The second act took a turn for the worse as the writers had clearly found a checklist of every farcical convention and systematically found a way to crush them together. Girl in underwear? Check. Man with trousers down? Check. Slamming doors? Check. Hiding in a wardrobe? Check. You get the picture. Whilst the familiarity of farce is easy to enjoy, in this case it was vulgar and exhausting to watch. Had the ‘situations’ been cut down by at least half, the play would have been just as funny and less a parody of what is actually a very clever and formulaic genre.
I am all for supporting modern British farces, and I am the first to commend any writer that gives some variety to the tried and tested Ayckbourn formula. In this case, The Duck House fails on every count. Farce relies on the audience liking the central character in order to sympathise (whilst enjoying) the kicks and scrapes they get themselves into. In this case Don Patterson and Clive Swash have created the most repugnant central character and one that the audience couldn’t care less about.
Comedian Ben Miller does his best to give some light and shade to his character, but ultimately can’t resist the material he is working with. Nancy Carroll gives a strong performance as his wife Felicity but is equally vulgar and unsympathetic. Singer Diana Vickers makes a cameo appearance wearing leather and yielding a riding crop adding to the strange turn of events. The end result is not only a game of two halves, but the overriding feeling you have been repeatedly beaten by an anthology of British Farce. The Vaudeville’s door will no doubt continue to revolve.
Swash and Patterson, who between them have contributed heavily to Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week, seem unsure whether they’re writing farce or satire. A lot of the play depends on switching items of furniture around…But the script is also filled with laboriously ironic jokes based on subsequent knowledge. So Andrew Mitchell is described as “mild-mannered bloke – rides a bicycle”, and later we’re told, “you wouldn’t see Nick Clegg selling his soul”. The first time you hear one of these retrospective topicals, it’s quite funny. Eventually, however, the law of diminishing returns sets in.
These are the outward trappings of a good farce, but there’s no real panic or structure to the proceedings, just an accumulation of gags and coincidences that don’t seem genuinely rooted in anyone’s intensity of feeling or overall farcical rhythm…Miller’s best moments are when he’s actually standing still, or miming, for reasons that now escape me, slow motion sumo wrestling…the show dissolves in some deeply unfunny physical antics involving cupboards, slammed doors and a pair of giant panda costumes.