A new piece that fits the farcical fashion of twisting and warping a familiar concept, Raising Martha is a fine comedy that takes the traditional hostage situation and adds a grim Midsomer Murders tone to it: the hostage is already dead, but give in to our demands or the bones get it!
The skeleton in question belongs to scruffy frog farmer Gerry (Britton) and stressed-out garden centre owner Roger’s (Bleach) long-dead mother, only now it’s (mostly) in the hands of a pair of animal rights activists. They will stop at almost nothing – they’re vegans, they get tired easily – to persuade Gerry to pack in the frog-farming business. Roger and his daughter Caro (Keyworth) try to convince Gerry to sell up, only Gerry’s started work on another method of income in the old house, meaning he especially doesn’t want the cheery Inspector Clout (Rawle) poking around and trying to help. There are numerous twists and turns, and Raising Martha is largely scripted and paced well. I do get the feeling that Gerry’s alternative method of income linked up more with the activists in an earlier draft, and the script could have mined that better, but it still is all very neat.
Raising Martha could still do with trimming some of the first act, and its jokes are definitely a mixed bag. There’s a lot of pleasing puns and one-liners that make it titter a minute, though few jokes raise the audience above that. The second half is better, but that is to be expected from a farce. I realize press nights usually bring a harder crowd, but there isn’t much escalation of consequences within scenes until quite far in. The dynamic of the older trio of men isn’t always natural, and they don’t always play off each other, creating that disjointed sense. Clout particularly doesn’t always play well next to the other characters. This may be due to his dual role as narrator and the fact that an inspector is always an intruder, but a lot of his delivery runs a fraction too slow for my tastes.
A bleak moral portrait of animalistic self-interest is painted, particularly summed up in an unexpectedly affecting speech from Caro. Raising Martha does deliver a warmer brace of laughs through the bungling activists Marc and Jago. They’re a Laurel and Hardy relationship (played strongly by Bennett and Fry) and their antics are a lot more sympathetic and laugh-inducing due to the clear power dynamic. Bennett’s charismatic performance particularly won the audience round using Marc’s honesty and bad luck. The loudest laugh of the night came through Marc being at the wrong end of Roger’s drunken grief, and a few more misunderstandings rather than tense situations could have built a more varied script.
Design was fitting throughout, the brother’s costumes being particularly good. Transitions and setting were well-structured by coherent light and sound work, and the whole really worked well together to create the paranoid small-town locales.
It’s a strong concept with good execution, but the show does fall short of bringing the audience to consistent laughter. Farce is often a matter of fine-tuning, so I’m sure Raising Martha will continue improving throughout its run.
- By David Spicer
- Directed by Michael Fentiman
- Cast: Tom Bennett, Julian Bleach, Jasper Britton, Joel Fry, Gwyneth Keyworth, Jeff Rawle
- Park Theatre, London
- Until 11th February 2017
- Review by Oscar Balfour
- 18 January 2017