Watermill - Black Comedy and The Bowmans
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Watermill - Black Comedy and The Bowmans

28th May to 5th July 2008.

From Newbury Theatre.

The Bowmans was originally an episode of Hancock televised in 1961. So how well does it transfer to the stage 47 years later? If you’re not familiar with Hancock’s Half Hour, you may wonder what The Bowmans is all about (apart from being a skit on The Archers), and not find it particularly funny. If you do know the Hancock character, it is funny, but as good as Will Barton is, he isn’t Hancock, and it’s impossible to avoid comparisons. The problem is that, while other multi-character sitcoms like Dad’s Army or ’Allo ’Allo can transfer quite well to the stage, it’s very difficult for one person to do justice to Hancock on his own (without Sid James, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques).

After the interval came Peter Shaffer’s delightful 1965 farce Black Comedy. The trick here is that when the characters are in darkness (most of the time, due to a power failure) the set is fully lit, and vice versa. So the first ten minutes are played in complete blackout, setting the scene (rather like listening to a comedy on the radio…). Then the lights come up and the fun starts. Sculptor Brin (Greg Haiste, growing ever more manic as the play progresses) has borrowed his absent neighbour’s expensive furniture without telling him, to try to impress a rich buyer and also the father of his deb fiancée Carol (Ellie Beaven). Neighbour Harold (Jamie Newall, archly camp) returns unexpectedly, and with the room filling up with Carol’s father (Robin Bowerman) and another neighbour (Claire Vousden), Brin has to try to return Harold’s furniture without anyone noticing, before the lights are restored. The arrival of Brin’s leggy ex-girlfriend (Rachael Spence) adds to the confusion.

The whole play, and in particular the furniture moving, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen for a long time. The pace is frenetic, the timing is superb, and there’s so much business going on that it’s hard to take it all in.

With great performances from all the cast, Director Orla O’Loughlin has got a hit on her hands. Do go and see it.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Laughter fills the bill

Hancock revisited and 'dark' comedy double at The Watermill

Black Comedy/The Bowmans, at The Watermill until Saturday, July 5

Forget the rising cost of fuel and unpredictable weather. Go to The Watermill and shed tears of laughter instead. This double-bill has the type of straightforward humour which needs no university degree to understand, it's just plain hilarious.

Galton and Simpson's The Bowmans, written for Tony Hancock's TV series, is a spoof on the Archer family's doings down on the farm. Will Barton cleverly captures the essence of Hancock himself as old Josh, a Walter Gabriel times 50, who gets axed from the long-running show. He riotously refuses to 'die', succumbing eventually, by saying that his hated dog (Rachael Spence as a whole farmyard) must be buried with him. Eventually, he comes out on top - but then the lonely, brilliant Hancock always did.

Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy keeps the audience in the dark rather differently from Agatha Christie, in a play which must keep those in charge of the lighting busy.

Brindsley (brilliantly and energetically played by Greg Haiste) has borrowed elegant furniture - without permission - from neighbour Harold (great camp performance from Jamie Newall) to impress his girlfriend's father (Robin Bowerman as the so-military Colonel Melkett) and millionaire Bamberger, who is coming to look at his sculptures.

As Brindsley and Carol (Ellie Beaven) get ready, the lights fuse and what follows, as the couple blunder about the stage in the dark, is inspired, side-splitting stuff. Electricity board man Schuppanzigh (David Peart) comes to solve the problem, and mistaken identity adds to the confusion.

The actors had rehearsed with blindfolds to avoid looking at each other when in the 'dark', and the effect was extraordinarily clever.

The three women were very different characters. Ellie Beaven, Melkett's spoilt 'Dumpling' as Brindsley's 'Knightsbridge candyfloss' girlfriend gets it absolutely right, as does Rachel Pearce as Clea, the ex-girlfriend ('four years of nookie with Torquemada') who turns up and adds to the chaos.

My favourite of the lot was Claire Vousden as cultured neighbour Miss Furnivil who ended up as drunk as a skunk.

Director Orla O'Loughlin agreed at the talkback that nothing is more important than making people laugh - and that's exactly what she has done. A gem.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From The Telegraph.

Black Comedy: what a lark in the dark

I have often written disobligingly about Peter Shaffer, whose past smash hits include Equus, Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Many find these works theatrically exciting and intellectually stimulating. To me they seem overwrought and pretentious.

But credit where it is due. Even this Shaffer sceptic must acknowledge that he has written at least one masterpiece. With Black Comedy (1965) Shaffer can claim his seat among the immortals.

This ingenious one-act play is based on a single dazzling idea, which Shaffer pinched from a fight scene in a Peking opera and transformed into a brilliant high-comedy concept of his own.

When the lights are on in the London flat where the action is set, the audience is confronted only with impenetrable darkness. But when there is a power cut in the apartment, and the characters suddenly find themselves groping around in pitch-black darkness, the stage is bathed in brilliant light, and those in the auditorium can observe exactly what is going on.

The skill with which Shaffer develops the idea is cause for joy and wonder. The harassed hero, Brindsley, is about to meet the military father of his new Sloaney fiancée Carol. Since he's a struggling artist, and wants to make a good impression, he "borrows" antique furniture from a house-proud neighbour.

The only problem is that the neighbour turns up, too, followed by Brindsley's former and now vengeful girlfriend. Our hero has to try to smuggle the furniture out of the flat while preventing his ex from creating virulent mayhem.

There are blissful moments as a teetotal spinster is mistakenly presented with an enormous whisky instead of her favoured bitter lemon and discovers she likes it, eagerly and repeatedly returning under cover of darkness to the drinks trolley for more; and deft scenes of physical comedy as Brindsley heaves the borrowed furniture past, over and around his unseeing guests as he attempts to return it.

Orla O'Loughlin's brilliantly choreographed production finds all the play's comic opportunities while also catching a pitch-perfect Sixties atmosphere.

The cast play their entertainingly stereotyped roles with aplomb.

Claire Vousden is a particular delight as the improbably tall and angular spinster who ends up drunkenly singing Rock of Ages; Greg Haiste reveals himself as a true farceur as Brindsley, responding to escalating misfortune with a high-pitched laugh of sheer terror; Jamie Newall is hilariously camp as the house-proud neighbour, while Robin Bowerman proves the very model of a modern crusty colonel. This is 75 minutes of pure theatrical pleasure.

As a curtain-raiser, the same company performs The Bowmans (1961), one of the last shows Galton and Simpson wrote for Tony Hancock.

A knockabout parody of The Archers, it features Will Barton as the lad himself, who discovers that his role as the village idiot is about to meet a sticky end in a threshing machine.

It's enjoyable enough, but it is a mark of the brilliance of Black Comedy that even vintage Galton and Simpson seems cumbersome in comparison with Shaffer's sublime farcical panache.

CHARLES SPENCER