Monday, 23 December 2013

Theatre review: The Duck House

In May 2009, a story broke about the biggest Parliamentary scandal in... well, in about a week, realistically. They're not exactly thin on the ground, Parliamentary scandals. The one we're looking at here is the expenses scandal, that saw Members of Parliament abusing their right to claim business expenses from taxpayers' money. Eventually the news would settle on the biggest issue, of MPs from all parties using their need for two residences (one in their constituency and one near Westminster) as a pure money-spinner. But initially all the attention was on the irrelevant receipts being charged to public funds, from the petty - 1p for a phone call - to the surreal - a moat, and a glittering toilet seat. The most notorious item an MP attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to claim for was The Duck House.

Dan Patterson and Colin Swash's farce takes us back to the day the news broke, to the horror of Labour MP Robert Houston (Ben Miller.) Seeing that Gordon Brown's government is doomed, he's plotting to defect to the Conservatives. He just needs senior Tory Sir Norman Cavendish (Simon Shepherd) to OK the deal but there's a problem: As details of the expenses scandal start to break, Houston realises that every single item anyone's been caught trying to claim for has a duplicate in his own home.

Opening with a monologue from Houston, who tells the story of his fall from grace in flashback, Patterson and Swash cram political references in very awkwardly for quick laughs, making for an unpromisingly heavy-handed start. They soon find their way though, helped by the confidence of Terry Johnson's production (Sean Foley having somehow been kept away from directing a West End comedy for once.) Miller has the politician's smarm down pat but it's Nancy Carroll as his wife (and secretary, at least according to the expenses) Felicity who most hilariously conveys the freebie culture they've become used to: Barely able to operate anything in the house because their illegal housekeeper Ludmilla (Debbie Chazen) does it all, she's gone way beyond understanding that there's anything wrong with how they live.

The second act takes us to the flat of their son Seb (James Musgrave,) which Houston has of course been claiming as his own second home, and which they now have to try and convince is his home rather than that of a student who's sold all the furniture to pay off his gambling debts. Matters are complicated by the presence of Seb's fiancée Holly (Diana Vickers,) an "acupuncturist" with whom Sir Norman has a pre-existing relationship, and this is where things get really silly.

The play's action takes place four years ago, and things move quickly in the world of political misdeeds, so Patterson and Swash have wisely avoided making the play all about the embarrassments of 2009, adding lots of little in-jokes about things that happened subsequently to keep a bit of an edge to the satire. But ultimately satire isn't what they're focusing on: Topical humour doesn't stay topical for long, but Simon Shepherd in a nappy being pelted with spaghetti by Diana Knickers as she calls him "Signor Berlusconi" is, er, timeless. Another of the recent spate of new West End openings that have turned out to be a lot better than expected, The Duck House is funny, silly fun.

The Duck House by Dan Patterson and Colin Swash is booking until the 29th of March at the Vaudeville Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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