Inverleith St Serf’s, Edinburgh – until 26 May 2017
Wobbly sets, missed cues, mixed-up lines and loudly whispered prompts are all in the script for the mid-eighties am-dram-set comedy taken on by St Serf’s Players for three nights only this week. This is, to give it its full title, The Haunted Through Lounge and Recessed Dining Nook at Farndale Castle, in which five members of the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society stage a play of that name. One of ten plays featuring the Guild written by David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr.
The big challenge for the company is to portray all the Townswomen’s Guild’s mistakes with a strong sense of naturalism, otherwise the whole thing can feel forced – and turn quick-paced skit-style comedy into a very long evening indeed.
The rewards are great, however, as the company gets to create the characters of the Guild and then have the fun of exploring how they would then portray the characters of the play itself, and how the internal politics of the club might spill over into the performances on stage.
St Serf’s Players go about it with verve, although they are somewhat undone in the earlier scenes when it isn’t clear whether the prompts are part of the humour or the real thing. And with the laughs so reliant on deliberate mistakes, such clarity is a must.
The best role for such internal politicking and multi-levelled performance is the Guild’s chairwoman and biggest self-aggrandising know-it-all, Mrs Reece. Rona Arnott certainly has a lot of fun as she hands round the programmes, runs the raffle and compere’s the interval poetry competition. It is, however, by far the trickiest part to pull off successfully, and there are quite a few times when her interaction with the audience feels just a little too scripted.
In many ways, this is the responsibility of director Jack Paterson. He hasn’t gone the distance he might have, to make the production completely immersive, or allow the conversation to find a more local feel. Both of which would have allowed Arnott to create a more off-the-cuff feel.
There are strong turns from Carole Birse as recently arrived Austrian, Thelma and Susan Garlick as long-serving member Lottie. Thelma and Lottie play eloping lovers, June and Marty, who find themselves stuck in a storm in the middle of nowhere and in need of dry place for the night in the play within the play.
Birse gives Thelma a very natural level of engagement with the play. Downplaying the “comic Austrian” Malapropisms, she never-the-less finds solid comedy in Lottie’s shock at the way other members of the guild act towards each other, breaking out of character with ease.
Thelma’s portrayal of seventeen year-old innocent, June, is surprisingly underplayed by Garlick. But with the opportunity to explore the art of coarse acting passed up, June is able to become the solid foyle around which the rest of action can take place.
Alison McCallum does a great job in her creation of Felicity, who obviously has a lot of previous with Mrs Reece – their on-stage flare-up while the rest of the cast carry on oblivious is a lovely moment. While her imaging of how Felicity would play sinister servant Crematia is spot on.
As new member Jasmine – who has twins on tow – Kate Lazdina has perhaps the most straightforward time of it. Jasmine plays a succession of men with names like Arnold Death or Rev. Tombs, who warn June of dire consequences and some hidden secret in Farndale Castle before mysteriously dying.
There are some really well presented and clever moments of comedy in the production. Notably sustained periods when characters get their lines out of synch, so that the response is delivered before the question.
Yet you can’t help feel that the basic premise is not as funny as once it was and, as a consequence, the whole thing needs to be done a lot more slickly and with a greater sense of adventure than St Serf’s have decided to provide.
But there are still plenty of laughs, whether you get jokes which reference Human League records or not.