Three One-Act Plays: A farce a trois

(Centenary Theatre Group)


Black Comedy by Peter Shaffer
Not in Front of the Waiter by Colin Graham and Viola Tunnard, with music by Offenbach
49A by Michael Harvey

Amateur production

Have you ever played suicide chess? Or thinking in reverse? Black Comedy is based on an intriguing concept, a reversal of dark and light, where actors speak initially from the darkened stage, acting “normally.” When a blown light fuse “blacks” out the room, the stage lights come up, and the characters are seen shambling around apparently invisible to one another. (While they mostly remembered to grope and stumble there were dead patches when some actors went into lulls when not actually speaking. Sure, they’re “in the dark”, but we do still see them!)

In this reversed lighting scheme, sculptor Brindsley Miller (Mark Tinsley) becomes both villain and victim of the farce as he stumbles around covering up a continued relationship with mistress, Clea (capably played by Bianca Cole). Indeed, many characters have secrets they would prefer to keep “in the dark.”

Carol (Hayley Berry) is Brindsley’s shallow society debutante fiancée – Carnaby Street 60’s mini skirt, boots and lurid blue eye shadow, she looks the part but her cooing high pitched voice soon grates especially with her liberal adding of “poo” to nouns. Playing this classic twit character must become a thankless task and her father, Colonel Melkett possesses a similarly simplistic military mind: “Problem: Darkness. Solution: Light.”.

Brindley, trying to impress as a potential husband for the “dumpling” daughter “borrows” furniture and antiques from his stereotyped gay neighbour, Harold (Matthew Zande) who returns home unexpectedly. Brindley has to keep the lights out long enough to return them undetected. Inevitably things disintegrate into chaos, with bumbling cover-ups.

A downside of playing farce is that characters are necessarily cartoonised: there’s repressed spinster neighbour Miss Furnival (Helen Hunter), a Baptist minister’s daughter and teetotaller who in the dark accidentally downs glasses of whiskey and gin instead of bitter lemon and becomes tipsy. Her rapid descent into drunkenness is a mirror of the deterioration of the whole evening. These, and German electrician Schuppanzigh (Mark Scott), while stereotyped cardboard characters, do add real touches of comic flair.

This morality play focuses on lies, mistaken identity and deception: don’t keep secrets, because they will undo you. Black Comedy explores the effect loss of light would have on a group of people who all hide things from each other. All in all, though, they’re a rather unpalatable group of people who fail to hold our sympathy, and even within the parameters of farce, more plausibility and depth would hold our attention better.

Perhaps my reactions were negative due to disappointment as I’d recently seen Peter Shaffer’s brilliant Amadeus , rich in characterisation and psychological insight. I looked forward to similar with his one-act play (written in 1965, soon after his much acclaimed The Royal Hunt of the Sun ). But although a clever and intriguing concept, it was too long and too shallow in characterisation to sustain interest for 90 minutes. With tighter script editing, direction and acting it might have been more effective.

This theme of black and white is effectively continued in the costuming of the second play, Not in Front of the Waiter , as is the central theme of infidelity: “He thinks I’m with my aunt” blithely trills one potential adulterer. The two couples are out for clandestine dinners in the same restaurant as their equally culpable spouses. Ho hum? Well, this is farce, after all.

The use of singing throughout picks up vitality after the first play’s lagging tempo. It’s aided by Ann Gaffney’s able piano accompaniment. Granted, the score is rather basic oom-pa-pa music hall style, not particularly memorable, but we’re too grateful for our lifted spirits to quibble.

The opening scene shows the waiter endearingly hamming up his table-setting. With a flourish he ushers in the first couple (she in white satin, he in dinner suit). The soup is brought in and returned to the kitchen as the couple obviously have other more pressing appetites. Enter the second couple, he in resplendent white tails, she in black satin. The two couples are shielded and divided by a large aspidistra, until the waiter interrupts to announce that he recognises the women’s strawberry birthmarks and pronounces them his long-lost twin daughters. He recounts his fall from grace that caused him to lose all contact with his wife and family. As the couples mix and match back with their spouses and line up to make their final bows, their costumes colour- coordinate. In a satisfying balance we notice the central father-waiter wears – you guessed it? – black clothes and white apron.

The opening duet caused a few concerns as far as pitch goes, especially from soprano Ruth Bridgstock as Solange, but her nerves settled and the intonation improved, revealing a quite pleasant if dominating voice. Mezzo soprano Kathleen Parker is overall more secure in pitch if less resonant, and all the singers could pay more attention to the requirements for ensemble singing, even though their individual vocal training is evident.

I confess I know little about the playwright Michael Harvey, and so it seems does Google. This third play, 49A refers to the bus of that number which, to the chagrin of two waiting commuters, fails to appear. It show-cases the acting skills of director Chris Guyler, which are considerable. Anyone who can hold the audience for around five minutes with just one word has something going for him. We’re intrigued with this static opening for some time, especially as we realise that as audience members we are waiting for that bus with them, in real time, feeling bored along with the characters. It’s a play on time. Inevitably we begin to wonder if this is a take on Waiting for Godot in the style of farce.

As we become restive, we wonder if perhaps the evening would be better advised to have ended with the Offenbach play. Would it be preferable to send us out with singing – even occasionally off-key – on a high? But no, as the more outgoing and adventurous commuter, Wicklow (played with a pleasant balance of British composure and dash by Gary McEwen) the farce escalates. Encouraged, the very proper but anally retentive British gentleman loosens, along with his tie (a symbol for inhibitions and habits) into schoolboy prankster. We see the two very proper gents who’ve waited patiently for the bus 49a are transformed. They play some silly wordplay and practical joking kids’ games, have such unaccustomed fun that the ending – no, I won’t spoil it for attendees – is in fact a hoot. Yes, it was a good choice for ending. Mirth? Yes, a fun premise, a good laugh.

These three short plays are typified as Mayhem – Music – Mirth. They deliver reasonably convincingly on all counts.

Directed by Chris Guyler

Playing until June 3, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 6pm.

Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes, two fifteen minute intervals

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Sat 27th May 2006)