It seems the popular Farndale series of comedies is alive and well in Brisbane with two productions running concurrently at Centenary and Brisbane Arts theatres. Written by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jnr, the plays revolve around the theatrical efforts of the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society a group of aspiring thespians who definitely put the ‘a’ in ‘amateur’. With each Farndale production attempt, things inevitably go horribly wrong as cast members forget lines, come on early or late or as the wrong character altogether. Then there are the cast members who don’t turn up at all, forcing the others to take their place. Add to this a liberal sprinkling of sound and lighting cues that are missed or messed up, sets that fall apart, doors that jam, etc etc…and I’m pretty sure you’ll have the picture. And while they may not be the greatest scripts I’ve ever read, they are nonetheless good fare for amateur groups wanting a nice, safe comedy that will please their regular patrons.
Centenary Theatre Group has chosen Chase Me Up Farndale Avenue S’il Vous Plait, the fourth in the series, in which we see the Farndale ladies producing a French farce with a plot we’re advised in the program NOT to try and understand. It’s just as well, since the comedy comes not from the play they’re trying to produce, but from how badly the characters try to produce the play. If this all sounds confusing, just think of it as theatre done badly on purpose!
Now, for a piece of so-called “coarse theatre” to work properly, good actors need to play bad actors well, and timing and pace needs to be of the highest level. Amateur groups tend to choose farcical comedies because they are popular with audiences and supposedly “easy” for cast and crew, but in reality they require timing and pace like no other type of play. One of my acting teachers once told me that “drama is easy, it’s comedy that’s hard”, and I’ve since discovered first hand that he was indeed right. If comedy does not have correct timing and pace, it falls flat and the audience do not get the level of comedy the author intended.
This production, directed by Chris Guyler, comes frustratingly close to achieving what’s needed, but a lack of acute timing and pace in several scenes unfortunately lets them down from achieving the ultimate goal. It’s just not quite as slick as it should be. Part of the problem involves actors pre-empting things that are about to go wrong and this cannot happen in coarse theatre. The characters need to appear totally oblivious to what’s going on around them for this type of comedy to work seamlessly. At times it worked well, very well, but other times saw some actors apparently waiting for the sound cue to go wrong or the piece of set to fall down, which ultimately spoiled the charade.
Having said that, there are indeed some nice performances from the cast who work hard from start to finish. Stacey Lake is one of the hardest workers of all, desperately trying to keep things together as the ever-smiling Mrs Reece who introduces us to the production and then takes on various roles within it, even stopping midway to share a special cake recipe with us. This actor obviously enjoys the role and it shows. David Bell also sweats it out on stage (literally), being the only male member of the cast who still has to don a dress and a bad wig at one point. Amy Coutts shines as Minnie, the costume assistant forced to take on a major role when someone pulls out. Jane Newman and Selina Kadell complete the cast, competently playing various roles, male and female.
The set, complete with panels that fall down, doors that get jammed and furniture that collapses, has been designed well by the clever Sue Watson. Costumes are well chosen and the entire cast thoroughly enjoy themselves on stage. The audience seemed to like it too, which of course is the main thing. Disappointing to see so few there to enjoy what is a very commendable attempt at a very difficult type of comedy.