Sunday, 25 August 2013

Theatre review: Thark

Last year the two most famous deconstructions of farce, Noises Off and What The Butler Saw were revived in London, but now for the unreconstructed thing itself: Ben Travers' Thark was one of the most successful of the Aldwych farces that ruled the West End in the 1920s. Whether it could fill that size of venue these days is questionable, and instead it's found its way to the main stage of the Park Theatre, in a production directed by Eleanor Rhode and designed, all staircases and sharp angles, by Cherry Truluck. Sir Hector Benbow (Clive Francis, who's also done some re-writing of the script) has invited young Cherry Buck (Lucy May Barker) for dinner in his wife's absence. But an argument over the sale of their country house, Thark, brings Lady Benbow (Mary Keegan) back to London unexpectedly so Hector asks his nephew Ronny (James Dutton) to pretend Cherry is his guest - a story that won't impress his fiancée. Add to this the arrival of Thark's new owner Mrs Frush (Joanna Wake) and the stage is set for a lot of running around and people posing as each other.

And for the first two acts this is exactly what we get, a horribly dated piece of limp farce with a rather creepy core of an old man trying to buy his way into a young girl's knickers, but which skirts around this sexuality to the point of being toothless. Its farcical setpieces aren't even particularly inventive. But a post-interval change of setting suddenly kicks Thark into a whole different gear.


That location is the titular Thark, where they all decamp to investigate Mrs Frush's claim that the house was sold to her under false pretences: The big old house has long been plagued by rumours that it's haunted, and now Mrs Frush and her son Lionel (Richard Beanland) have moved in, things have started to go bump in the night. The third act is livened up straight away by Thark's butler Jones, a wonderfully lugubrious presence as Andrew Jarvis throws in all kinds of hisses, coughs and growls to keep the family creeped out, when he's not silently creeping up on them during the inevitable thunderstorm.


It all culminates in a very silly night spent in the haunted room, Hector and Ronny grudgingly sharing a bed to prove neither is scared, while the return of Lionel and Cherry, now secretly dating, provides enough creaking staircases and white-clad figures locked out on the balcony to ensure a good night's sleep is out of the question.


It's ironic that this famous farce is at its most successful when it more or less ditches the classic farcical structure but the enthusiastic ghost story spoof of the third and fourth acts easily trumps the tepid sexual shenanigans of the first two; Dutton and Claire Cartwright as his fearsome fiancée Kitty are also a lot more fun trying to brave out spooky goings-on than they are in by-the-numbers misunderstandings and bluster. The ending's a bit underwhelming (and apparently this is one of Francis' alterations, the original having been even more of a damp squib) but overall this is very much a game of two halves, Rhode's production finding a sense of fun in the play's latter half that no amount of mugging was going to uncover in the first.

Thark by Ben Travers, adapted by Clive Francis, is booking until the 22nd of September at Park Theatre's Park200.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including interval.

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