Tom, Dick and Harry at West Walls Theatre
Written by Ray and Michael Cooney
Directed by Lexie Ward
Farce is extremely difficult to get right. To do farce well requires pace and precision. There are no fluffy edges, short-cuts or gently rounded safety corners, it's very much an exact science. A complex structure that hangs together by a thread that, if broken, brings the whole experience crashing down.
Which is why my heart sank when, before the show was even underway, a dreaded announcement was made. "Due to illness the part of Tom will be played tonight by the director."
In professional theatre stand-ins and understudies are commonplace. They're well rehearsed and ready at a moments notice to fill the gap created by the absence of any member of the cast. Nine times out of ten you'd be hard pressed to spot the odd one out at all had you not been told as much by an announcement or a slip of paper surreptitiously stapled to the programme. Amateur theatre is a different kettle of fish entirely. Rarely are shows able to afford the the luxury of understudies and it's completely understandable to see why - It's a pretty thankless ask to expect someone to go to the lengths of learning an entire role when everyone in the company is hoping and praying that they will never get to utter a word and, unlike the professional world, there's no financial incentive to soften the blow. As a result, stand-ins in amateur productions are almost always uniformly awful. Invariably it's some poor soul who clearly doesn't want to be there fumbling around the stage with a script in their hand, trying their hardest to say the right lines and avoid reading out loud any stage directions. While audiences may start with sympathy in their souls, it's rare for it to last until the end of the first act. It's distracting, it's immersion breaking and, like watching England in the World Cup, falls perfectly in the gutter between frustration and disappointment.
What was most galling was that I had been looking forward to this production since it first appeared on my radar. Directed by Lexie Ward who's Boeing Boeing had been the slickest farce I had ever seen on an amateur stage, here seemingly using a much of the same cast, I had very high hopes for Tom, Dick and Harry indeed. Instead, I was now all but sulking in my seat as the realisation struck that not only were we burdened with a stand-in but it was for the main role. With suitably revised expectations, I gritted my teeth as the curtains opened.
Plot wise, Tom, Dick and Harry is perhaps Cooney at his most farcical. Tom (Seb Coombe, but here played by Lexie Ward) and wife Linda (Sarah Coyle) are in the process of adopting a baby, with the final adoption interview due any minute. Things are complicated as wheeler-dealer brother Dick (James Sparks) arrives from a Calais run (in typical Cooney style he naturally lives in the upstairs flat) with a van full of cigarettes and booze. Meanwhile other brother Harry (Pauley Heron), arrives at the house festooned with body parts, mindful of some plan to bury limbs in the back garden in order to reduce the house price. Constable Downs (Daniel Mason) is following up on Dick's escapades, when we discover that he brought more than contraband back from France as two Albanian immigrants appear on the scene (Michael Spencer and Caroline Robertson). With these pieces set in place it becomes the usual runaround business of building lie upon lie trying to keep the truth from Linda and, in the second act, adoption interviewer Mrs Potter (Emma Norgate), before things finally come to a head with the arrival of Russian Gangster Boris (Ben Jansz).
First things first. Despite my reservations and extremely low expectations, Ward was exceptional in covering the role. Were it not for the gender swap and the script in hand you could quite readily believe she had always been playing Tom. To even mention the script in hand is, frankly, a disservice. So confident was Ward you soon stopped noticing she was reading the lines at all. There was not a shred of hesitation, dubious inflection or break in character. An almost audible sigh of relief errupted when, only a few minutes in, the audience realised they were not going to suffer some horrendous cut and paste version of the production. The surge of applause and goodwill when Ward took her bow at the close of the show was one of the most remarkable noises I have heard from a theatre and I am quite happy to admit I was whooping and cheering with the rest.
All of which is not to say that the circumstances and Ward's extraordinary performance detracted in any way from what is probably the strongest cast the Green Room has assembled since, well, since Boeing Boeing, especially given that a large chunk of the cast was largely new to the West Walls stage. Sparks and Heron were perfect foils for both each other and for Ward, Sparks cheeky and confident, Heron dim, inventive and endearing. All three maintained the breathless pace of the narrative in very physically demanding roles with Sparks mimed explanation of the plight of the immigrants being a highlight. Coyle performed well in the largely thankless role of the 'straight [wo]man' in a Cooney farce, largely there to startle and get in the way of the antics of the men. Mason, Norgate and Jansz all had their moment in the spotlight with Norgate in particular impressing as the stern and severe Mrs Potter. How she managed to keep a straight face with the surrounding mania was quite an achievement, albeit one that Mason wasn't quite able to share. Watching him strain to hide his smirk was almost as funny as the material itself.
Finally, we come to the two most unusual characters in a script packed with oddballs; Andreas and Katerina, the Albanian immigrants. I've commented before that Robertson seems capable of stealing any scene she features in. Her presence on stage is almost magnetic with her ability to draw the eye and hang off her every word. She manages to achieve the same here and is equally matched by Spencer despite the handicap of not getting any English dialogue in the entire script. Every line uttered by the duo is in Albanian save for the occasional break into almost indistinguishable pigeon English and their performance is relentlessly hilarious. From their first appearance the already electric pace seems to kick up a gear, their presence magnifying and heightening everything that goes on around them. Spencer in particular seems to be in his element, stripped of humorous dialogue he makes the most of the physicality of the part throwing himself into pratfalls, Cossack dancing and, perhaps funniest of all, being squeezed into a sofa communicating only through cunning use of a kazoo.
Tom, Dick and Harry is certainly the silliest play I have seen in a very long time and stretches the limits of exactly how far a farce can be pushed, but director Lexie Ward always keeps the nonsense believable by setting such a lightening fast pace that the audience is never given the opportunity to think things through. It struck all the right notes throughout, the audience hooting with every new ridiculous plot development, while all the while emphasising with the plight of poor Tom who just wants the day to end. Character and pace in perfect unison. The Green Room has always had a reputation for being excellent at comedy but, if the current trend continues, it may well soon be known as the best venue for farce this side of the West End.