The Duck House*** (Vaudeville Theatre, 12 December 2013)

Posted: December 13, 2013 in Theatre

photo-80This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

The biggest challenge facing the writers of The Duck House must have been to create a comedy that would be funnier than the real life farce that it draws from. In 2009, the nation was enthralled and appalled as, day by day, more details were revealed of expenses claims by Members of Parliament, some of whom seemed to think that it was more important to shelter ducks from weather that is, proverbially, nice for them than to make sure that taxpayers’ money was spent correctly. The curtain rises to reveal Robert Houston MP and his wife guzzling expensive Champagne to the sound of quacking outside their French window. He is on the verge of defecting from Labour, lured by the offer of a ministerial post in a future Government, she is dreaming of the luxurious lifestyle of a Tory wife, no longer having to feign enjoyment of scampi and chips. To seal the deal, they need to impress a Tory party grandee who is about to visit, but the expenses scandal is breaking and all evidence of unjustifiable claims needs to be hidden. Needless to say, the evidence is substantial. At the beginning, the play is styled as political satire of the mildest kind, bringing a torrent of rapid-fire jokes, most of them very funny. There is a recurring gag in which someone in the 2013 headlines – Andy Coulson, Nigella Lawson, Andrew Mitchell, etc – is referred to as seen in 2009. Of course, one line gags cannot sustain a full-length play alone and this play moves on to develop into a Feydeau-like farce with rapid entrances and exits, outrageous costumes and general mayhem. The greed, hypocrisy and deceitfulness of the characters are exposed whilst they are put rightly to ridicule. Political satire and broad farce are styles of comedy that do not aways sit comfortably together in this play and reactions at this performance could suggest that each of the two styles appeals to different audiences. The production has weak moments, particularly during slapstick routines, which occasionally feel laboured, predictable and incongruous to the context of the play. Nonetheless, accepting that there are a few points when the production misfires, the laugh-out-loud moments outnumber them by far. Leading a top-notch cast, Ben Miller is perfect as the hapless MP, growing increasingly frenzied as the extent of his involvement in the scandal becomes ever clearer; he consoles himself that at least he does not have a moat, until he is told that there is one surrounding his duck house. Nancy Allen shines as a socialite who loathes socialism, as does Simon Shepherd as a top Tory who is arrogant and pompous until a secret involving how he makes use of the Treaty of Lisbon is revealed. Also excellent are James Musgrave as the MP’s wayward son and Diana Vickers as his girlfriend from Burnley, who has paid off her student loan with earnings from a novel form of acupuncture. A maid is obligatory in most farces, so here we have a Russian one with ultra right wing political views, splendidly played by Debbie Chazen. Terry Johnson is a director with vast experience in comedy and he keeps things moving with flair and precision. Lez Brotherston has designed two sets, both striking but in different ways; Act I takes place in the opulent living room of the MP’s house in the London stockbroker belt; Act II moves to the MP’s “second home”, a London flat which he has never previously visited, now daubed with graffiti and stripped of the furniture paid for by taxpayers, then sold to pay off his son’s gambling debts. From the Palace of Westminster, politicians need only take a short walk along Whitehall and then right into the Strand to find the Vaudeville Theatre. En route they could cast a glance or two sideways to see the homeless huddled in spaces barely wider than a typical duck house and ponder on the irony. Maybe a few of them will feel chastened by this play, but, whilst, leaving the real world behind for a couple of hours, the rest of us can enjoy a jolly good laugh.

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