By Arthur Wing Pinero
At the Theatre Royal, Brighton, and on tour.
Until September 1, 2012.
As English as summer rain, the genteel farces of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero are perfect for the tourist. Dandy Dick from 1887 is expertly done here with a top-notch cast and beautiful designs, and it all adds up to a quintessentially English night at the theatre.
Given a wide berth by producers (the last major West End production was in 1973 with Patricia Routledge), this one is essentially a bit of fluff, whose closing message that “there is no harm in a bit of fun”, is about as radical as it gets. While this might have been a suitable outing for one’s maiden aunt (do they still exist?), today it is of interest more as an historical curiosity. Farce has since got more edgy, thank goodness, but director Christopher Luscombe, who has a real feel for the genre, and his pitch perfect cast, make this worth the effort.
You can’t of course get more English than Patricia Hodge, and here she relishes the part of the ultimate horsey woman, ‘George’ Tidman “the daisy of the turf”, a merry widow, whose visit greatly discomfits her clergyman brother (Nicholas Le Prevost). Hitting it off (or should that be ‘orf’) with her brother’s old chum Sir Tristram, Michael Cochrane in tally-ho mode, she labours the equine metaphors to breaking point. “What names do you run under?” she demands of her fillies... I mean nieces.
The archetypal no-nonsense, blustering, English country lady, she is no doubt inspired by the great Lady Gay Spanker in Boucicault’s play London Assurance, which Fiona Shaw personified so perfectly at the National Theatre last year.
Pinero’s farces generally shied away from sex (this was the era when they covered piano legs to avoid inflaming passions) and instead offered a frisson of delight to the middle classes who could safely watch respectable people like themselves in danger of losing their social position because of some indiscretion. Here it’s a clergyman, who, while trying to raise funds for the restoration of his church spire, ends up embroiled in a horse doping scandal. Le Prevost is wonderfully pompous and exasperated as he inveighs against gambling, while having to put up with two amorous daughters and their guardsmen suitors, a dodgy butler, a jealous copper as well as the visit from his flighty sister, who ends up asking him to stable her prized steed, Dandy Dick, after a fire. The midnight shenanigans, here set to peals of thunder, whilst the Dean and the butler concoct a potion to benefit the horse in the next day’s race are classic farce.
Luscombe’s staging is wonderfully solid in every sense. It features some choice original music, in the Victorian style, by Nigel Hess, beautifully played and sung by the cast, and it is greatly enhanced by Janet Bird’s extravagantly beautiful sets and Hilary Lewis’ perfectly judged costumes. It’s a Rolls-Royce production for a play which really probably doesn’t deserve it.
The production fits like a glove into the gorgeous Theatre Royal Brighton, (opened in 1807) and having been written in Brighton and set around the fictional race meeting of St Marvells (modelled on Brighton racetrack), it’s the perfect place for ATG Theatre Group to launch this new touring venture. Theatre Royal Brighton Productions is being led by Luscombe and two other theatrical luminaries, Maria Aitken and Philip Franks, and aims to showcase the best of British drama. Next up is Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and the aim is to tour them around ATG’s national theatre circuit (the country’s largest) before hopefully ending up in the West End.
Dandy Dick would make a perfect Christmas amuse-bouche if it ends up on Shaftesbury Avenue.