Park Theatre, London – until 11 February 2017
RIBBIT! RIBBIT! FROGS, FOOLS, FABULOUS
Here’s a tonic for this flat, glum season! Divinely tasteless, bracingly cynical , hootingly funny (jokes from subtle to silly) and directed with pacy intelligence. David Spicer has written what should be a breakthrough play, in a gorgeously black-hearted Ortonesque spirit. Michael Fentiman’s cast could not be better.
Jeff Rawle is a dim, self-confident whiskery rural Inspector telling us the story of his investigation into an animal rights outrage: the theft of a five-years-dead corpse (don’t worry, nice clean bones). Martha was the unregretted matriarch of a family frog farm, supplying specimens for dissection and experiment: as the show opens we see, digging overhead, the animalrighteous Jago (Joel Fry) and his wonderfully whiny dupe sidekick (Tom Bennett, increasingly funny as the show goes on).
But for me the greatest treats began with the dishevelled middle-aged son Gerry, who runs the frog farm in between glumly strumming a guitar unable to find a rhyme for “Linda” (who turns out to be, unseen, key to the plot). Gerry has actually given up frogs and secretly diversified into cannabis laced with hallucinogenic cane-toad venom : those creatures exotic stoners like to lick. A side-effect of his habit is the frequent arrival, seen only by him – and us, of course – of 6ft tall frogs with great prop heads and white doctors’ coats, threatening to vivisect Gerry with a lot of learned scientific discussion of whether he can feel pain. And the big treat is that Gerry is played by Stephen Boxer: an RSC veteran, who was stunning as Tyndale in Written on the Heart, as Petruchio, as the Archbishop in The Heresy of Love, as the NT’s Gloucester in Lear…
As so often, a classic class-act gives a broad , absurd and loopy part real power, subtlety and conviction, with sharp timing to which the others rise with matching glory. Julian Bleach is the apparently saner brother Roger, gradually himself driven manically nuts (one gets a strong sense of who Martha was, and how she is probably better company as a series of bones, flung around and brandished by the various camps) . Roger’s daughter Caro, who is not at all what she at first seems, is Gwyneth Keyworth.
They all play the accelerating chaos with farcical skill (the final fight is spectacular) and all are given the sort of lines you scribble down. Some are satirical: Clout the policeman pleased when the attackers are defined as terrorists because “You can get away with murder if you’re defending freedom..you are now a police budgetary priority!”. Some are magnificently silly (there’s a Yorick joke, oh yes). Everything skewered is a pleasure, including a splendid definition of the modern noir TV cop-hero: “All they have to do is drive around looking gloomy and arrest the first person who’s more psychologically damaged than they are”.
Me, after a rough day I feel psychologically healed by two hours of this rude black-hearted absurdity. It’s nearly as good as licking a cane toad.
box office 0207 870 6876 to 11 Feb