Monday 27 February 2023

Theatre review: The Walworth Farce

After many delays Southwark Playhouse finally opens its new, permanent main house, a few minutes' walk away from its other venue on the other side of Elephant and Castle. Southwark Playhouse Elephant has staged a couple of community shows as a warm-up, but its first professional production is an overt reference to its new location: Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce takes place around the corner, in a 15th-floor council flat some years before the recent redevelopments that include the current building. Dinny (Dan Skinner) lives there with his two adult sons, and as the play begins Sean (Emmet Byrne) returns from his daily trip to Tesco, just in time for them to begin a performance: They will act out the day Dinny had to leave Ireland, fleeing to the flat that used to be his brother's before the events of that day.

Dinny plays a younger version of himself; Sean his uncle Paddy and a variety of other men; and his older brother Blake (Killian Coyle) all the female parts. It's not strictly speaking a farce but it is farcical, as the men run through a shaggy dog story that sees them swapping wigs and costumes, arguing about sausages, and carting multiple cardboard coffins around the flat.

But it takes very little time to become apparent there's something much darker going on, and the two younger men are imprisoned in their father's story: They replay the scenes every day, and have done for who knows how many years, in the hope of winning a "Best Actor" trophy their father will invariably award to himself. Dinny is tyrannical both as father and director, bullying them into telling the story to his exact specifications, and keeping them infantilised and afraid of the outside world. He's particularly brutal to Sean, possibly because he's the one who shows some tiny spark of independence - his daily supermarket shop for the same items turn out to be the only time any of them leaves the flat.

But today's trip didn't go to plan, and when the cashier, Hayley, flirted with him Sean accidentally picked up the wrong bag of shopping. It turns out Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks) has followed him home on her lunch break to bring him the bag he left behind, and the surprise arrival distrupts the men's fragile ecosystem - soon she's been roped into their story herself. The Walworth Farce is very funny, with much of the real humour coming from the surreal nature of some of the lines, but it's the blackest of comedies, quickly exposing how damaged the characters acting out the farce are. It also uses comic conventions for a lot of this darkness, so Dinny genuinely beating up Sean with a frying pan takes a slapstick trope and makes it frightening. There were times I got a Philip Ridley vibe from the play, particularly after Hayley first enters into an intensely menacing flat and cheerfully breezes through the place, ignoring Dinny's fury.

Nicky Allpress' production boasts committed performances - so committed that Byrne has shaved part of his head for the part - that manage to make the play's wildly contrasting notes of tragedy and comedy work. Designer Anisha Fields also deserves mention for an incredibly detailed set Phill and I were still picking up little visual gags in at the interval - the crucifix acting as a bolt on the door, the anglepoise lamp lighting up the Best Actor trophy, the out-of-date Pope photo on the kitchen wall* - as well as the endless supply of costume details that the men use to take on different characters. Southwark Playhouse Elephant makes a strong first impression as a venue† as well as with its choice of opening show: It may be partly chosen because of geographical relevance but the play itself is a darkly funny look at the way people rewrite their own histories and drag their families into them, given a note-perfect production.

The Walworth Farce by Enda Walsh is booking until the 18th of March at Southwark Playhouse Elephant (Dante Place, 80 Newington Butts, London SE11 4FL.)

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: David Jensen.

*and Phill just needs to accept that I was right, the one who just died was German, it was the one before who was Polish. But yes, the current one at time of writing is from Argentina

†although people are going to manage to get lost in the toilets, mark my words

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