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Review: Thark at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Written for Everything Theatre

A cold winter evening is the perfect time to see a light-hearted bit of twenties comedy, especially when it’s taking place at a lovely pub theatre such as the Drayton Arms. The odd name of the play in question, Thark, refers to the country house that our leading man Hector Benbow has sold to Mrs Frush, a sale that she is now keen to undo because the house is haunted. We only find this out at the end of the first act, which is mostly taken up with Hector trying to hide from his wife the fact that he’s trying to start an affair. This is usually accomplished by blaming his nephew Ronny and his long-suffering butler Hook for everything that goes wrong. The second act, which takes place in the haunted house in question, is also largely given over to Hector’s machinations, the supposed ghosts merely serving as an excuse for various characters to crawl into bed with people who are not their significant others. In other words, it’s exactly what you would expect from a 1920s English country house farce.

I can see what playwright Ben Travers had in mind with this, but unfortunately Thark pans out as a rather less successful version of Jeeves and Wooster, the popular stories by Travers’ contemporary P.G. Wodehouse. The story is predictable; a really good farce can fool you into thinking you know exactly where it’s going, only to pull the rug out from under you at the last minute. That is sadly not the case here, with a fairly unsubstantial storyline. There are also some unfortunate instances of period (read: sexist) humour, some of which feel particularly off-colour in the current climate. I understand that this was par for the course in 1927, but the jokes Hector makes about trying to invite shop assistant Cherry out to dinner (along the lines of, ‘well she said no but women always say no when they actually mean yes’) made me feel quite queasy, and could have easily been cut. Other jokes are right on the mark, however (‘don’t bend over, it makes you look like a prawn’) and there’s some properly silly physical comedy to enjoy.

The closest Thark gets to Jeeves and Wooster-success is in the central performance by Robin Blell as the hapless but amiable toff Ronny, who brings some excellent facial acrobatics to the part. There are good performances as well from Alexander Hopwood as awkward posh boy Lionel Frush and Isabella Hayward as Hector’s love interest Cherry Buck. Unfortunately, the cast aren’t evenly matched though, so not all performances are quite up to scratch.

Nothing’s been held back in set and costume design, which are both detailed and sometimes even rather lavish for a small fringe production. One set change is even completed by way of a twenties-inspired dance routine, which, in my opinion, is really how they all should be done from now on.

All in all, Thark is an uneven play with some properly flimsy scenes. In its best moments though, this is a delightfully silly show, and you will certainly come out with your spirits lifted.

Thark is playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 6 January 2018