They say that humour often does not travel well, but perhaps it time travels even worse. Who, in 2017, finds Charlie Chaplin funny? Or the Marx Brothers? Well the latter would get a big hands up from the creators of this production, but they are taking a risk when assuming that they will find audiences who will share their enthusiasm for the American comedy trio who had their heyday in the 1930s and 40s.
Dominic Hedges centres his play around a fading variety theatre in wartime London where Lombard (Jake Urry), the impresario, is struggling to pay the bills and his performers, Tommy (Peter Stone), Rachel (Rachel Hartley) and Cyril (Jordan Moore) are threatening a walk-out. During a bombing raid, they rummage through boxes in an air-raid shelter, come across some unperformed Marx Brothers scripts and look for salvation by forming a sort of tribute group..
Hedges’ core idea is a good one and it would have been better had he been able to bring together the two strands of the play – the wartime drama and the performance of the Marx Brothers sketches – more successfully. If he could have found a way to insert the sketches at intervals throughout the play, it could have felt more fully rounded, but, as it is, he delivers an unbalanced piece in which long spells of backstage bickering become tedious and repetitive, leaving all the juicy comedy to near the end. Director Terrence Mann’s production is slow to gain momentum and some cutting to the first half could make things move more briskly. Also, it has to be asked whether the flow needed to be interrupted by an interval. 20 minutes spent at the bar included in a production that runs for only 95 minutes is ridiculous. Changing sets is an implausible excuse when one of the production’s most notable successes is rapid changes of the moveable scenery.
Happily, when Tommy becomes Harpo, Cyril Groucho, Lombard Chico and Rachel their stooge, everything changes. Doppelgängers for the brothers the three guys are not, but it matters little that their impersonations are inexact when they capture the flavour of the humour so well and execute the quick-fire gags with precision timing. This is great nostalgic fun, demonstrating that what the production has most in its favour is a talented young company able to give it that “let’s put on a show” feel. This show takes its time to get going, but when it eventually hits the right Marx, the wait is worthwhile.
Performance date: 19 January 2017
Photo: Mitchell Reeve