Watermill - Plunder
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Watermill - Plunder

31st January to 3rd March 2007.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

In a bit of a flap, chaps

Plunder's riotous bedroom scene is farce at its best

Plunder, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, March 3

Two comments overheard in the interval summed up my conflicting thoughts about this latest Watermill production directed by Heather Davies. One of Ben Travers' famous Aldwych farces, it is, according to the programme, 'considered one of the most influential plays of the 20th century'.

The first came from a group of young women: "Isn't it fab? They're all so good..." and the second, from an older male voice as we settled into our seats: "Is it going to be funnier in the second half?"

The story concerns the efforts of wrong 'un-but-superbly-suave Freddy Malone and his accomplice Prudence, to relieve the brash widow, nouveau-riche Mrs Hewlett, of her jewels. Freddy is forced to take the exuberant D'Arcy Tuck into his confidence, a decision which leads to discovery - and a death.

Set against an attractive background of country houses in the days of flappers and butlers, the story builds with asides, such as the hilarious pursuit of Prudence (Kirsty Besterman) by Oswald Hewlett (James Bradshaw), to the riotous bedroom scene.

It is worth seeing Plunder just for this, true farce at its best, as the two thieves, played by John Sackville and Oscar Pearce, clamber through Mrs H's window, intent on theft.

With the advent of the police, the play reverts to straight TV cop talking stuff, the pace slows right down and Hugh Futcher, glorious as the dancing, lisping butler, is landed with the strangely colourless role of the monosyllabic inspector.

When D'Arcy is interrogated, desperately trying to say the right thing and failing - loved the sideways winks at Malone - the farcical humour returns and, eventually, a final twist sorts everything out.

The central two couples, Freddy and Prudence, D'Arcy and girlfriend Joan (Ellie Pearce) capture the feeling of the era exactly, as do the clever scene changes with the occasional 'freeze' creating a cameo of the time.

In spite of all the bustle and blare, I had difficulty in wholly believing in Sarah Whitlock's Mrs Hewlett, but none in appreciating her lovely, awful son Oswald, who has so many of the superb one-liners. Listen out for them, there is clever dialogue here and though I may not completely agree that Plunder is 'fab', I guarantee you will find much to laugh at.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From Newbury Theatre.

I like a good farce. They are still staple fare at the Mill at Sonning, but farces have generally gone out of fashion nowadays, so it was with keen anticipation that I went to see Plunder at the Watermill.

Ben Travers wrote his best-known farces in the 1920s, and Plunder is set in that era. Freddy Malone is the smooth-talking upper class con man who aims to steal the jewels of parvenu Mrs Hewlett. Freddy’s accomplice Prudence has captivated Mrs Hewlett’s gormless son Oswald, but their plot starts to go awry when a school friend of Freddy’s, D’Arcy Tuck, arrives on the scene and gets roped in. D’Arcy’s incompetence threatens disaster when the police arrive on the scene…

A promising plot, but the play as a whole hasn’t aged well over the last 80 years and the laughs didn’t come easily. A great pity, because the acting was excellent. John Sackville, as Freddy, was cool, calculating and in control – a Raffles-style gentleman criminal. Oscar Pearce, as D’Arcy, stole the show with his completely over the top self-satisfied complacence. Sarah Whitlock was a formidable Mrs Hewlett, in the mould of Peggy Mount, and you couldn’t help feeling sorry for James Bradshaw as Oswald, out-manoeuvred and intimidated by just about everyone. The rest of the cast were equally good.

It’s hard to know what more director Heather Davies could have done. Part of the problem is that there is hardly any backstage area, so most of the entrances and exits have to be through the auditorium, and snappy though they were they didn’t have the impact of a closed set.

The last Ben Travers play I saw was Thark, also at the Watermill and about 15 years ago. I wasn’t very impressed with that; maybe Ben Travers’ time has passed.

PAUL SHAVE

From The Times.

two stars
Ben Travers wrote Plunder in 1928. Long neglected, it was revived by the National in 1976, and was included in its “One Hundred Plays of the Century” list in 2000. So this is an appealing prospect for the Watermill — a classic farce, ripe for revival. But on Monday night’s evidence it’s hard to make a case for it. The play hasn’t aged at all well, and despite creditable efforts by the cast, Heather Davies’s production isn’t a success.

Joan Hewlett wants to claim her inheritance. Accompanied by her dashing fiancé D’Arcy Tuck — who may or may not have his eyes on Joan’s money — she arrives to discover that her late grandfather has married the housekeeper, Mrs Veal, and left everything to her. She produces a marriage certificate and will and banishes Joan from the house.

Also in residence is Mrs Veal’s oafish son Oswald, his fiancée Prudence Malone, Prudence’s rakish brother Freddy — who enters through the french windows wielding a golf club — and “Uncle” Simon Veal, who hints at dark family secrets. The Malones are a pair of “society crooks”, masquerading as brother and sister. Freddy and D’Arcy make common cause and conspire together to seize Mrs Veal’s jewellery.

Most of Act I consists of exposition of the above — so much for the idea that farce should be fast-paced. There are leaden jokes about the Veals’ low social status (“Better class people than what we are”) and about Mrs Veal’s weight (“You’ll have to go a long way to get round me”). It’s feeble stuff. The butler’s comedy lisp doesn’t help matters either.

The robbery finally occurs at the end of Act I and by Act II we’re in proper farce territory. The action is cranked up, police are in pursuit, and events are spiralling out of control. Squirming under police interrogation, Oscar Pearce is thoroughly charming as an excitable, buffoonish D’Arcy. John Sackville, too, comes into his own as the silver-tongued Freddy.

But strong performances are hamstrung by staging problems. Colin Falconer’s minimalist set makes inventive use of the Watermill’s limited space, but it’s a handicap that isn’t overcome — it’s too cramped for the actors to flourish.

Plunder might have been rescued had this been a more lavish production. But the problem is that, despite occasional period charm (“Stop all that flapdoodle!”), this material was out-evolved long ago.

MARTIN STEVENS

There's a review in The Stage ("difficult to criticise any of the cast... should cause uncontrollable laughter but this level of hysteria is not reached... the best performances are reserved for the male roles").