York’s production of Philip King’s wartime comedy is rarely ‘laugh out loud’ funny, but provides an enjoyable evening of jokes about mistaken identities, vicars and silly German accents.
Set in the fictional village of ‘Merton-cum-Middlewick’, the play begins with an argument between the rotund spinster Miss Skillon, and Penelope Toop, the vicar’s wife, over the harvest festival decorations and her insistence on wearing trousers. Other exciting events such as the visit of Mrs Toop’s uncle, the Bishop of Lax, whom the maid Ida amusingly insists on referring to as ‘your highness’, and Mrs Toop meeting with her old acting friend Clive, now a soldier, who must pose as her husband by changing into his ‘second best suit’ in order to prevent the village talking, provide enough characters and complications to make for the mistaken identities and slapstick chase scenes that later occur.
After a slow and unamusing start, the play picks up and King starts to prove his skill as a writer with riotous slapstick sequences. Ida’s relentless attempts to roll the inebriated Miss Skillon into the broom cupboard are hilarious. The culmination of the play is a cycle of figures dressed as vicars or in their underwear running past the vicar Arthur Humphrey, who has arrived early, jumping over a passed-out Miss Skillon on the floor, while Mrs Toop tries to play hostess to the vicar. Humphrey becomes so convinced that everyone in the house is mad, that when Mrs Toop offers him a drink that has been stolen out of her hands he plays along and pretends to drink it in an eye-wateringly funny scene.
The cast gives a sound performance with Faye Winter playing the perfect ‘caged bird’ housewife-who-was-once-an-actress, and Mark Denham, Mr Toop, her understanding vicar husband. Philip Mansfield is also an excellent confused yet uncomplaining Rev. Humphrey – ‘I am a reserved occupation’, being one of his best lines. Lucy Phelps as Ida the maid was the stand-out performance of the show, however. Subtleties like her bowlegged stance and blunt, cheeky manner of speaking at times had the audience screaming with laughter, particularly during her silent angry hot water bottle dance.
One of the better aspects of the play was Barney George’s set design, without which many of the chase scenes would not have been possible. The whole play takes place in one room in a vicarage, but the use of stairs and particularly the passage at the ‘back’ of the house, which the audience can see only through the windows on the inside, allows for moments of amusing dramatic irony, as well as creating a sense of space and position that stops the play feeling clinical. Ida’s cycling past the windows having been told not to by Mrs Toop is only seen by the audience and the timing is perfect.
The problem with this comedy is therefore not the actors or the set, or even its slapstick nature; it is that it is simply not funny enough. I only began to laugh at the climax of the play, due to the chaos surrounding Humphrey’s visit and the futile attempts of a mysterious intruder to pose as Mr Toop with a thick German accent. Earlier jokes such as references to silly names like ‘Chippendon-Chompeny’ or the largeness of Miss Skillon’s backside had me slightly cringing in my seat. ‘See How They Run’ makes for a pleasant evening’s viewing, but as farces go, it is less ‘Fawlty Towers’ and more ‘Carry On’.