By the time the visiting Bishop of Lax proclaims ‘Sergeant, arrest most of these vicars!’ there are more men of the cloth on the Duchess stage than the non-ordained. How they get there is the twisted tale told in Philip King’s classic wartime comedy See How They Run. Matthew Amer was at the Duchess last night to witness the West End directorial debut of Douglas Hodge, the busy thespian who can also be seen cooking the offspring of his enemies in Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s Globe this summer.
Miss Skillon, the tweed-wearing local with a nose for other people’s business, is not happy. She has visited the vicar to proclaim her upset at the pulpit being decorated for harvest festival by someone other than her. The culprit of this heinous crime is none other than Mrs Toop, the vicar’s wife, who also infringes on public decency by wearing trousers and waving at soldiers. From there, the arrival of an old friend, the vicar’s outing to play the piano, a punctured tyre, an uninhabitable hotel and a desperate flee from captivity take over to twist and turn the plot so that only half of the characters know who each other are by the end.
Though written in 1943, See How They Run had the audience of the Duchess laughing uproariously last night. Hodge has blended the outrageously funny text with glorious moments of physical theatre such as maid Ida trying to let her mistress know about the surprise in the cupboard, or visiting preacher Reverend Humphrey taking solace from an imaginary drink.
The script, though packed with humour, also takes time to make serious points. When old actor friend Lance Corporal Clive Winton is discussing his life in the forces and the boundaries he must not exceed, he drops in the line ‘In the army, there is never any reason for anything’. The play is also gloriously self-aware, not enough to be pretentious, but enough for everyone to share the joke that Winton has starred in enough plays to know that, on stage, putting on the vicar’s suit can only lead to trouble.
The ensemble cast stay the correct side of caricature with their characters. West End debutant Natalie Grady steals many of the laughs as the endearingly unceremonious Ida, while Nancy Carroll and Julie Legrand lock horns as the casual, young Mrs Toop and the uptight, traditional Skillon. West End veteran Tim Piggott-Smith is a brash and confounded Bishop of Lax.
Stepping into the Duchess is like stepping into World War II nostalgia; ushers wear warden’s uniforms, 1940s tunes play through the speakers, even the mobile phone announcement is given a period makeover. See How They Run shares all of the fun, vibrancy and spirit of the era, taking the audience back to a world of mild mannered humour that is often absent from the 21st century. br />