FringeReview UK 2018
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, tour-directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward; with David Farley’s boggling set, crucial lighting by David Howe and Roberto Surace’s costumes which seem fixated on bigger versions of their previous. Joey Hickman provides musical backdrop and cappella singing. Jon Fiber for Jollygoodtunes provides the sound systems for offstage vocals. Comedy-oriented Kenny Wax Ltd is one producer, alongside Stage Presence Ltd with Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
The Theatre Royal’s caught it now. After the original The Play That Goes Wrong at the end of August, we jump to the third in the series.
Originally directed by Mark Bell for Mischief Theatre, writer/actors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields developed Mischief Theatre’s third major farce. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, the original still playing at the Criterion, is here tour-directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. It takes a new direction in the genre. There’s 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. Jon Fiber for Jollygoodtunes provides the sound systems for offstage vocals and as the company would say, Everything Else.
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 with Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
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 (Liam Jeavons) 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, David Coomber 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 FBI 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. That’s circularity. Impressed by Sam and hoping she’s seen the back of Ruscutti she invites Sam 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 (and tupping) Caprice who’s desperate to entertain him till Sam’s out, and each time failing as Sam dangles a half inch above. ‘Stop’ she cries to Sam, and Ruscutti thinks she mans him which she doesn’t as sex is her only distracting weapon. And so on. Then there’s a window, and some seagulls. Remember them.
Sam keeps attempting escape dressed in a variety of clothes only to be caught at the door and comes in first as Freeboys adding bits of disguise every time Ruscutti’s back is turned, and improvising answers to Caprice’s wild semaphore behind the psycho’s back. He finally exits only to have to enter again as the maintenance: he’s either to be shot or join in. It’s classic farce on amphetamines.
There’s some blink-fast scene-shifting as a variety of scene changes introduce larger and larger hatted police chiefs roaring at Killian MacArdle’s luckless Shuck, and at his wedding to Ruth 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 Warren Slax are at odds with each other’s versions of gravity. Whilst Freeboys seems at home at ninety degrees Slax (Jon Tenchard, 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. He drops papers, spills coffee, whilst Freeboys serenely continues at an odd angle to the universe.
Others arrive at an odd angle to him, causing even him to question where – as it were – to draw the line. This as the robbers describe a box shape in air vents (also at ninety degrees) along the stage floor as if snaking along the top of one side of the building.
The twists and denouement are too delirious and unlike other farces dark to reveal. But the honours if evenly distributed for the most part, must go to the extraordinary Damian Lynch 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. Jeavons 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.
Charlotte Duffy as Caprice Freeboys works blissfully and slinkily with petty thief (whom she thinks doctor rabbi and lawyer in one) Sam. It’s another wow of a performance. Sam’s played straight by Sean Carey, 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 Ashley Tucker is the hugest reveal. George Hannigan’s Everyone Else is too easily overlooked. Except in his Marcel Marceau routine. It’s a company of twelve with Tom Hopcroft, Eddy Westbury and Ross Virgo taking the three unnamed parts.
Perhaps most touching is the sudden lurch and apotheosis of two characters who lack friendship. Watch out for saviour seagulls. 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. Though touring means some of the visuals have to be slightly crimped you’d not notice much even if you’d seen the Criterion original. The acting’s as outstanding. This is a redefining farce in every way.