Park Theatre, London – until 11 February 2017
There’s a madcap edge to David Spicer’s new comedy that spoofs so much of modern England.
Stephen Boxer is Gerry Duffy, a middle aged frog farmer who’s been supplying amphibians for dissection in schools for years, but who recently has become the target of animal-liberation activists. His brother Roger, (Julian Bleach) who he’s not seen for years, arrives at the family farm at the suggestion of Inspector Clout a police officer, because as has been set out in the opening scenes, the bones of the brothers’ mother Martha have been dug up by the local animal rights mob, to be held hostage until the farmer’s frogs are freed.
The plot is thickened because not content with just breeding frogs, Gerry has also been cultivating a hydroponic cannabis farm, which now that Clout is inconveniently sniffing around the house, gives rise to some early comic gems in the narrative. Whats more, Gerry has been introducing the secretions of cane toads, famed for their hallucinogenic properties, into his growing crop and as such has acquired a reputation for providing some of the strongest skunk around.
In a masterful turn we also discover his predilection for licking the cane toad’s skin to get his own particular legal high. The psychedelic nightmares so induced are as hilarious as they are violent. Once stoned, Gerry (along with the audience) sees himself being gorily dissected by vengeful six-foot frogs. Those old enough to recall Lindsay Anderson’s seminal movies ‘If and O Lucky Man!’ will see nods to that gloriously British anarchic humour in Spicer’s writing.
The plot is madness but to quote Hamlet (as the play occasionally does) there’s a method in it, as amidst perfectly timed farce, some witty one liners and even some perfectly judged crudity, Raising Martha makes for one of the funniest new plays in years. Michael Fentiman. whose Titus Andronicus at the RSC a few years ago proved his talent in helming violent comedy, makes fine work of a script that simultaneously plays out over multi-locations and which in less assured hands, could lose its nuance and easily flop.
The assembled company are a stellar bunch with casting director Anne Vosser’s skills plainly evident. Jeff Rawle is Clout – a sometimes hapless moustachioed country copper edging towards retirement who’s the very embodiment of Private Eye’s Knacker Of The Yard. Rawle makes perfect his ineptitude, in a performance that is as wistful of the rural Plod from days gone by as it is up to date. Joel Fry and Tom Bennett are the bungling grave robbers, Fry channeling Wolfie Smith in his passionate but dishonourably devious campaigning, while Gwyneth Keyworth as Roger’s feisty daughter Cora completes the cast, offering the distraction of infidelity amongst the ranks of the animal-libbers.
In today’s era of vocal liberal protest, Spicer takes no prisoners – and his ability to mock the hypocrisies of the animal liberating social justice warriors, is as evenly matched by his dissection of the English middle class as personified by the Brothers Duffy.
Certainly not for the squeamish, but for those who like their comedy served bloody (consider perhaps a Carry On movie, but one produced by Hammer Films), Raising Martha is an all too rare treat.