FringeReview UK 2016
Mark Bell teams with Mischief Theatre – writer/actors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, in Mischief Theatre’s third major farce. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery takes a new direction in farce, with David Farley’s boggling set, crucial lighting by David Howe and Roberto Surace’s costumes which seem wonderfully fixated on bigger versions of their previous. Joey Hickman provides musical backdrop and cappella singing. Comedy-oriented Kenny Wax Ltd is one producer, alongside Stage Presence Ltd.
The Criterion can’t keep away from long-running farces. After a brief pause following The 39 Steps, something not wholly dissimilar’s arrived and has just extended its run. One wonders if it too might make a decade; only the team who created it will decide otherwise.
Mark Bell teams with Mischief Theatre – writer/actors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, in Mischief Theatre’s third major farce. We’ve had the Goes Wrong plays and this The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, takes a new direction in farce, with David Farley’s boggling set, crucial lighting by David Howe and Roberto Surace’s costumes which seem wonderfully fixated on bigger versions of their previous. Joey Hickman provides not simply musical backdrop but moments of cappella singing: it’s that kind of show. It’s not surprising that comedy-oriented Kenny Wax Ltd is one producer, alongside Stage Presence Ltd.
This isn’t the classic line of farce, but a banned steroid of it. So symmetries found in Faydeau or indeed Boeing Boeing are dragged through the more shaggy ends of Ray Cooney, and every kind of British comedy writing so we end with a farce of such teetering proportions that any part of the edifice tumbling might bring another Victorian theatre roof down. It’s farce at the pith of genius.
It’s 1958 and psycho Mitch Ruscitti (Henry Shields) is busting out of an Ontario prison with the help of his mate and the whole Prison service; only he double-crosses everyone with the exception of the getaway warder hapless Neil Cooper, Greg Tannahil who only wants friendship, something echoed elsewhere in one of the more plangent eddies underneath all the wildness. Ruscitti’s making for his girl in Minneapolis: she just happens to be the daughter of the most incompetent bank manager in the city, Robin Freeboys currently inspected by Officer Shuck, who’s sweet on Ruth Monaghan working there, whose son petty thief Sam falls for Caprice Freeboys, girl on the make – and Ruscutti’s girl. Impressed by Sam and hoping she’s seen the back of Ruscutti she invites the one up. Ruscutti isn’t just insanely jealous he’s after the diamond stored at the bank for just one night.
This barely scratches the verbal gags – you can tell that Robin Freeboys is gong to become literally three boys, since in the madcap attempt to rob the bank there are at least two who dress as him, and no-one surprisingly can tell them apart. The mistaken identity gag is out of the top drawer, the one with the vault key in fact.
But that’s to anticipate the set scenes of banter in the bank, and the extraordinary scene where Sam, trapped in Caprice’s room (she’s already seen off other admirers after taking their cheques) is trying to edge down past Ruscutti topping Caprice who’s desperate to entertain him till Sam’s out, and each time failing as Sam dangles a half inch above. Sam keeps attempting escape dressed in a variety of clothes only to be caught at the door and come in again.
There’s some blink-fast scene-shifting as a variety of scene changes introduce larger and larger hatted police chiefs roaring at Jeremy Lloyd’s luckless Shuck, and a cappella church singing of a singular order. Greatest of all is the vertically presented heist itself, where presented at ninety degrees as if viewed from above bank manager Freeboys and his own luckless sidekick Slax are at odds with each other’s versions of gravity. Whilst Freeboys seems at home at ninety degrees Slax (Jonathan Sayer, repeatedly knocked on the head to lose and regain memory by everyone else, a fantastic physical performance) plays up the vertical challenge, breaking out of the illusion, another running gag. This as the robbers describe a box shape in air vents around the rectangle of the prosc arch.
The twists and denouement are too delirious ad unlike other farces dark to reveal. But the honours if evenly distributed for the most part, must go to the extraordinary Henry Lewis with his strangulated pitch as Robin Freeboys, a monstrous performance of a monstrous man. His bulked out psychosis and bullying perhaps embodies another monster in the news of late, though his performance and team work are impeccable. Shields as the psychopath has to be one-note mean but in farce one note is essential for many characters and the unexpectedness of his character is still unrepeatable. Charlie Russell as Caprice Freeboys works blissfully and slinkily with petty thief (whom she thinks doctor rabbi and lawyer in one) Sam played straight by David Hearn, only of course as thief he’s a supreme impersonator, the most quick-witted even in this company of crooks. But his upright mother played by Nancy Zamit is the hugest reveal; Chris Leask’s Everyone Else is too easily overlooked.
Perhaps most touching is the sudden lurch and apotheosis of two characters who lack friendship. There’s more than a hint of pathos and darkness about this farce. It redefines the category, by edging beyond even recent work and revealing a classic structure entering a hall of mirrors and going mad. The musical as well as general ensemble is the most remarkably timed I’ve ever seen in a theatre, and the set designs and shifts the most frantically split into milliseconds. This is an outstanding and redefining farce in every way.