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Liberty Hall

7 February 2018

 

Sketches for a Farce

Liberty Hall

by Robin Jennifer Miller

Rare Fortune Productions at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 10th February

Review by Matthew Grierson

Young Tom clearly has the imagination of a seasoned farceur. I mean, why else take his new American girlfriend to a posh hotel in the country and pretend it’s his ancestral seat? Thank heavens the hotel’s owners are willing to play along with their guest’s fancy to ensure misunderstandings are maintained.

Liberty Hall

One such misunderstanding is that the framework of farce is itself sufficient to sustain proceedings in the absence of rigorous plotting: too often, Liberty Hall depends on farcical logic rather than offering any sense of why its protagonists are behaving as they are. Characters enter, exit and make proposals without suggesting that they have personalities or indeed agency of their own. Precious time is devoted to telegraphing plot developments that are not then sold by the performances, while other disclosures blindside with their unpreparedness.

Bradley Crees as Tom exemplifies the play’s laissez-faire approach. Having gone to some lengths to impress his new girlfriend Zoe (Susan Casanove) by arbitrarily aspiring to be a real-life Hugh Bonneville, he conveys throughout a self-satisfied indifference to events. Even when Zoe and his ex, Anna (Georgia Riley), are both in the same room, he prefers to smirk rather than exhibit the anxiety you might expect. It is not long before it becomes evident that he and Anna will get together again and that Zoe will pair off with Tom’s best pal Colin, but the respective chemistries do not convince that the play is doing anything more than arranging a curtain call with four neat couples.

Similarly unlikely are the play’s Americans: Marvin Monroe – intentionally or not sharing the name of The Simpsons’ resident psychologist – has less psychological complexity than the current POTUS, while daughter Zoe has to remain gullible enough to be swayed by Tom’s wanton pretence at aristocracy. At least Kenneth Michaels’ broad, brash characterisation of Monroe matches the script’s limited understanding of our transatlantic cousins. Why, he even gamely falls in love first with Colin as dragged up as “Harriet Grey”, and then, once “she” is out of the way, with English teacher Miss Davis, having conveniently remembered that he met her on a cruise years earlier. Seemingly given to such spasmodic revelations, Michaels also skips a cue to send hotel staff looking for drugs in a suitcase before anyone else has announced their suspicions; in a taut, well-scripted production this might be forgivable, but here it compounds the sloppy dialogue and chopped logic.

Credit where it’s due, though: the rest of the cast don’t bat an eyelid at the slip and keep things moving briskly along. The play’s few highlights indeed depend on what energy and enjoyment the performers are able to bring. While no motivation is provided for her to do so, Julia Haythorn as Barbara clearly relishes the chance to act up as “Lady Stokes”. Such is the gusto with which she tackles the role of frosty aristo I wondered why she did not in turn volunteer herself to be “Miss Grey” as well … which would have made more sense than dressing Colin up as the fictitious English tutor. The only reason for this seems to be that it’s funny to see a man impersonate a woman badly (no slight on Alexander Jonas as Colin, who makes a good fist of a poor part). It might have been more satisfying had the script established him as Tom’s put-upon stooge rather than cheery factotum, so he could seize the opportunity of his transformation into a woman to come out of his shell and declare his love for Zoe. As it is, Tom gleefully strands him in his transvestism for no good reason and, just as improbably, Colin remains in drag until, stretching credulity still further, he is escorted offstage by Zoe and Anna as two ersatz police officers.

There are several such situations in the show, contrived to be incidentally amusing but squandering the opportunity to offer a more coherent – and funnier –story. Barbara, for example, spins a good yarn about the ghosts said to haunt the house, but other than a momentary confusion late on when Miss Davis rises from the banquette with a white blanket draped over herself, the joke goes nowhere. Couldn’t the spooky story have provided Tom with valuable cover for the appearance of Anna, whom he might have characterised as the Scarlet Lady?  Once such entertaining possibilities occur, it’s difficult to remain engaged with the action as it appears on stage. Matters are not helped when lengthy set-ups are abruptly discharged like squibs – why is there so much business with the bags? Why is nothing made of George’s desire for a sneaky cigarette? What prompts Miss Davis to get so quickly drunk when she is a professed teetotaller? Comic potential is also thrown away when characters sit down and recap the plot to one another, as though the play were frightened of causing too much confusion.

Announcing itself as “a new farce”, Liberty Hall is sadly neither of these things, too concerned with rehashing the motifs of the genre without a framework of its own strong enough to hang them on. New farces have been more successful paying homage to the tradition while finding something fresh to do with it (as Suff’ring did, for instance). Writer and performer Robin Jennifer Miller acknowledges her debt to the genre in her programme notes, and despite token references to the present day, the play does seem to inhabit a generic mid-century setting where it would sit more comfortably. In the 1950s, it might have been at least plausible that an English Lady or an American gent might have had “old-fashioned” attitudes to the proclivities of their offspring, who are all clearly old enough to decide with whom they hop into bed. But if Miller’s goal is to celebrate a golden age of farce, why not simply revive one of those earlier, better-crafted plays? George’s line “It would help if I knew why we were performing this ridiculous charade” may be intended as a wink to the audience, but I felt more like wincing given that it nails the action’s lack of rationale.

Liberty Hall is at least a rewrite and a couple of rehearsals away from being a satisfying piece. As it is, it lacks the motivation or momentum to enable the suspension of disbelief, and is as delusional as Tom claims Anna is: it’s definitely not the play it imagines itself to be.

Matthew Grierson
February 2018

Image courtesy of Rare Fortune Productions
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From → Drama, Reviews

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