The play is set in May 2009, one year before the General Election, Gordon Brown's Labour government is unpopular. Robert Houston is a Labour backbencher seeking to defect to the Conservatives to keep his seat, when the expenses scandal hits the papers the day before his interview with Sir Norman Cavendish to complete the switch. Houston, having claimed practically everything on expenses (including hanging baskets, massage chair, elephant lamps, sparkly toilet seat and duck house) is in trouble and so are his family and staff, and somehow Seb's girlfriend Holly is involved with Sir Norman….
Robert Houston, MP – Ben Miller
Felicity, his wife – Nancy Carroll
Ludmilla, his maid – Debbie Chazen
Seb, his son – James Musgrave
Sir Norman Cavendish, MP – Simon Shepherd
Holly, Seb’s girlfriend – Diana Vickers
Written by: Dan Patterson and Colin Swash
Director: Terry Johnson
Set and costume design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Well, last night I was entertained and entranced by a superb production of Candide, which was worth every penny of the ticket price. Today I have been blown away in a different sense, by the appalling and excruciating idiocy of one of the worst things I have seen as a paying customer at the theatre in a very long time. Now, if you are a regular reader you will know that I have very little time for farce; I rate it only slightly higher as an art form than Last of the Summer Wine (something I would willingly undergo a haemorrhoidectomy with blunt spoons and no anaesthetic to avoid). I vaguely expressed an interest in seeing this because of its subject matter; like you, I lapped up every column inch of the expenses scandal and chuntered away into my coffee (which I paid for myself). The fact that it was written by the stalwart scripters of Mock the Week and HIGNFY only increased my interest. Slightly. Well readers, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it”. We got dirt-cheap tickets (always a sign that the box office is falling off) and I have to say it was worth exactly what we paid for it.
The early part of the first half is not without promise – there are lots of funny throwaway lines in the vein of HIGNFY; comments that are funny with the benefit of hindsight about how our elected representatives stole huge sums of money from the electorate in the name of “expenses”. There are also digs at Peter Mandelson, how well Chris Huhne drives and how devoted he is to his wife, “Teflon Tony”, Andrew Mitchell (“nice chap, rides a bike”) and so on and so forth, and they come thick and fast. But then the elements of farce start to creep in alongside an improbable story about how Houston has “flipped” his centrally located flat in order to furnish his constituency home and vice versa. Doors start to bang, trousers are dropped, things fall out of cupboards and a ridiculous subplot based around cock-fighting debts emerges, and its at this point that things start to get a lot less funny. The farcical element starts to feel as if it has been rammed head on with political satire in a desperate attempt to get them to meld together and the result is a complete and utter chimera; identifiably neither one thing nor the other. Eggs are secreted in pockets (and you just know that, in a couple of minutes, someone is going to slap those pockets by mistake) and then a bowl of custard is hidden on the seat of the massage chair (and you just know that, in a couple of minutes, someone is going to sit on the chair by mistake) and so on and so forth. There is a lot of running around hiding things in cupboards (and you just know that, in a couple of minutes, they are going to fall out of the cupboard at compromising moments…….). Its all utterly, utterly predictable.
An element of farce even crept into the interval. I went to the toilet and found that the floor was an inch deep in water. Bear in mind that The Vaudeville Theatre is owned and operated by Nimax Theatres, the same group who own the Apollo Theatre (where the ceiling fell in recently). I searched around to try and find a member of front of house staff to report this to and the only person I could find was selling ice cream. Someone was despatched with a mop and bucket. At this point, Him Indoors decided that he too needed a piddle and headed for the same toilets. A flunky monkey in a badly fitting suit was on guard duty outside the door and announced that the toilets were now closed due to flooding, so Him Indoors was directed upstairs to another toilet, outside of which there was now a long queue of gentlemen wishing to relieve themselves. When, I ask you, did you ever see a queue outside the Gents? There were so many in the queue that Him Indoors was forced to choose between going to the toilet and getting back to his seat for the second half. He should have chosen the former….
The second half died on its feet. Died a horrible, lingering death. Slowly. The story ran completely out of any kind of creative steam and descended into hiding in wardrobes, low rent prostitutes, MPs dressing up in nappies and being spanked with a copy of the Lisbon Treaty, some ‘Allo ‘Allo caricatures of various European heads of state, stolen trousers, people smearing themselves with cheese, a can of aerosol glue, lots more slamming doors and a panda costume. Yes, it sounds ghastly and believe me, it was. The laughter from the auditorium ebbed quickly away and turned into the kind of embarrassed, uncomfortable silence that greets a resounding fart at a formal dinner party. Him Indoors sat there with a busting bladder and I got more and more uncomfortable that I had actually expressed an interest in the show and dragged him to it. Never have I felt so guilty. The “jokes” were puerile, the plot as thin as an MPs excuse, the frenetic activity on stage only serving to highlight the paucity of the writing. How this drivel ever made it to the stage I will never know.
Actually, I do know. Someone somewhere sensed a bandwagon stashed high with money and jumped on it as it rattled past. This is the kind of show you get when the £ signs pop up in the eyes of someone high up in Nimax Theatres and they think “Fuck art, this is going to make me so much money that it will make the claim for moat cleaning look like peanuts”. What makes it worse is that some slimy apologist for MPs has actually contributed an article to the programme about how what good value for money our elected representatives are, how hard they work and how much more we should be paying them so that they aren’t tempted to commit fraud. In a display of chutzpah so blatantly misplaced that it makes Margaret Moran’s claim that she was “too depressed” to stand trial look like a scene from Oliver Twist, the company that makes the duck house that Sir Peter Viggers “bought” with our money has actually taken an advert in the programme. Is there no beginning to these peoples’ shame?
Nancy Carroll, a stunning Viola a couple of years ago in Twelfth Night, demeans her craft by appearing in such drivel. And what bright spark cast Diana Vickers, X-Factor reject and all round talentless slapper, in this? Did they think she could act? Well, they will be disabused of this opinion should they care to witness her witless attempts at performance.
Really, take some advice. Stay at home. Save your money. Use your own toilet. This duck’s goose is well and truly cooked. Painfully unfunny.