REVIEW: Black Comedy, Minerva Theatre, Chichester ✭✭✭✭

Black Comedy at the Minerva Theatre Chichester, with Robyn Addison, Paul Ready and Marcia Warren. Photo: Alastair Muir
Black Comedy at the Minerva Theatre Chichester, with Robyn Addison, Paul Ready and Marcia Warren. Photo: Alastair Muir

Black Comedy
Minerva Theatre, Chichester.
26 July 2014
4 Stars

It is almost 49 years to the day since the premiere of Peter Shaffer’s extraordinary farce, Black Comedy, starring Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith and Albert Finney, opened at Chichester. Now playing at the Minerva Theatre is a revival helmed by Jamie Glover and it’s a delight.

The central conceit is unique. Young man and girlfriend wait anxiously for the arrival of her father and a potential buyer for his artwork. Suddenly the lights go out and they are pitched into black, total darkness. An elderly neighbour stumbles in, frightened in the dark. Then the military father arrives, furious that the man is so unprepared. Then the neighbour whose furniture the man has borrowed to impress the potential buyer turns up unexpectedly. The man’s other girlfriend arrives unexpectedly and impersonates the cleaner to try to obfuscate. Then the electricity repair man arrives, and finally the millionaire buyer.

As the play opens, the audience sits in total darkness. Then, when the lights fuse, the stage lights come on – so a fully lit stage is a stage in which the actors are in darkness; a pitch black auditorium means the actors are in light; and half-light serves for moments of illumination with lit matches and portable torches.

There is endless opportunity for crisp split-second dangerous business, as the young couple try to keep up their various deceits and return the neighbour’s furniture and ornaments without him noticing. People fall down stairs, bang into furniture or doors, get tangled in phone cords or suitcase handles, accidentally overturn rocking chairs, walk into open trapdoors – it’s a smorgasbord of pratfalls and physical comedy. Kate Waters (Movement Director) and Glover have plotted the morsels of hilarity carefully.

And a lot of it is genuinely funny, rip-roaring in fact.

Astutely, Glover has opted for an entirely period setting and so the feeling is very much Sixites sitcom – which is perfect.

The cast is first-rate.

Paul Ready is marvellous as the hapless young man with two girls and no furniture. His physical comedy is excellent – he can fall down a flight of stairs with aplomb. He has that nervous, gormless, laddish style that Richard O’Sullivan honed to diamond tipped precision. With his clenched hair and ever-increasing pile of bare-faced lies, he provides much of the focus of the comedy.

Robyn Addison gives excellent support as Carol his silly, twittering girlfriend, and she is delicious as the blonde bimbo. Jonathan Coy is punctilious and volcanic as her military father – breathlessly funny in the moment with the rocking chair. His sense of exploding spleen and chimney red cheeks is delightful.

Rosalee Craig is in fine form as the other woman, and especially good when pretending to be the cleaning woman. She has a deft touch for silliness and comedy that works a treat here.

Shaun Evans finds his inner John Inman in a gorgeously judged performance as the prissy, fussy neighbour, equal part camp sensibility and arch stereotype. It’s not remotely offensive because of the period, but even more because of the warmth and style that Evans brings to it all. He literally brought the house down with a casual throwaway line ( “You sure this is right time?) when, in the dark, Ready whispers to Craig that she should wait for him in the bedroom and Evans overhears and think Ready means him. Could not breathe.

There is excellent work too from Mike Grady as the long-suffering electricity board employee and Samuel Dutton as the eccentric and deaf millionaire – Dutton does the most breathless walk into an open trapdoor which looks entirely accidental.

But the star turn is with the extraordinary Marcia Warren, who plays the scared spinster from down the hall. She is magnificent, lands every line and effortlessly creates joy out of very little. The moment when she realises that she has been given gin instead of bitter lemon is truly hilarious, surpassed only by the moment when she realises that in the dark she can get more gin completely unobserved and proceeds to get completely hammered. Fine, precise comic acting.

Andrew D Edwards provides a two level set on a thrust which is terrifically useful in supporting the comedy. Things are carefully laid out in a way that makes them look accidentally placed, so when the reason for the placement becomes clear, it does not seem forced or silly. The costumes are delightfully retro and add their own charm to the whole proceedings.

It’s great fun and shows what magic the theatre can be when the aim is simply to entertain.

4 stars

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