Southwark Playhouse Elephant – until 18 March 2023
Some of my earliest theatre going memories are all to do with farce. I can remember childhood outings to see the wildly popular Whitehall farces of Brian Rix and indeed the very first thing I ever appeared in fell into that category (Caught Napping by Geoffrey Lumsden, since you ask). The mechanics of the genre are endlessly fascinating and provide a challenge for both writer and performer; technical skill is paramount. Writer John Mortimer once said “Farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute”, a notion which Enda Walsh seems to have taken to heart in his 2006 play The Walworth Farce, featuring, as it does, distinct elements of both to provide a fascinating hybrid.
It has been revived as one of Southwark Playhouse’s opening productions for their brand spanking new Elephant auditorium just down the road from the original theatre. I thought the farce element had come into play early as Google Maps had me circling and recircling the gigantic and terminally depressing Elephant and Castle roundabout in search of the eventually located venue which is tucked away but nicely designed.
As the other element of the title tells us, it is set in the area of which this new theatre space is a part so really, what could be more appropriate? And if there’s a choice between premiering with either comedy or tragedy, why not start with something that covers all that ground at the same time?
However it’s badged, the play takes place in a dilapidated 15th floor tower block flat (design by Anisha Fields) inhabited by father Dinny and his two sons Blake and Sean. It is only the latter who ever leaves the confines of the flat and then only to go to Tescos once a day to pick up some essential props for a bizarre play acting ritual that the three engage with on a daily basis and which they have ben repeating for years. Dad is both the author and main turn in this play within a play, regularly awarding himself an acting trophy and bullying and ritually humiliating his sons to participate as all the other characters.
Their persistent re-enactment is of the three men’s last day in Ireland before moving to inner London though it has, over the years, become a heavily fantasised and bastardised scenario in which the plainly animalistic Dinny has transmogrified into a brain surgeon while his rather more placid sons are reinvented as sadistic hooligans who bully other children and have killed a dog. That this play within a play’s chosen genre is broad farce merely serves to point up the underlying tragedy of the trio’s desperate lives.
Sure there’s plenty of door banging, running around, manic delivery, mugging, cross dressing, terrible wigs and preposterous events to evoke the genre of farce but there’s also underlying terror, violence and coercion in plentiful supply which actually makes the piece more tragic than comic. It’s essentially the love child conceived by Pinter (The Homecoming) and Orton (Loot) with heavy doses of Philip Ridley thrown in for good measure. The mood oscillates wildly and thrillingly between the belly laugh and the punch in the gut. I thought the piece took some time to find its feet but that is largely because it is constantly confounding expectations and is played at a cracking pace which can leave you slightly dazed.
The acting is universally good with Killian Coyle’s extracting audience sympathy for Blake’s plight while simultaneously laughing at his ridiculous embodiment of all the women in his father’s creation. There’s a particularly heart wrenching turn from Emmet Byrne as younger son Sean. He, at least, has some contact with the outside world and indeed has memories (brutally suppressed by his father) of the real cause of the family’s decampment from Cork. He has vague notions of extricating himself from his daily ritual humiliations and when an outside disruptive influence invades the flat in the form of garrulous supermarket cashier Hayley (Rachelle Diedericks in great form) it is all Dinny can do to maintain his daily ritual’s momentum; his solution is to subsume his unwilling guest into the action.
Sharing the toxic domineering of the brutal father in The League Of Gentlemen’s Pop sketches – not to mention the walrus like moustache – Dan Skinner gives the audience an object lesson in comedy and menace managing to create something which is both a character and a caricature at the same time. It’s all deeply unsettling but, of course, it is meant to be. Director Nicky Allpress’s production often finds the sweet spot between the comedy and tragedy though, in the end, it is the latter which remains in the memory. It’s a fascinating evening in which the elegant construction of the play, juxtaposed to the brutal subject matter brings you up with a jolt. I’ve been a man on a bit of a mission over the last week or so – namely to find a production which was badged as comedic and which actually made me laugh. I had been sadly disappointed by Winner’s Curse and Windfall both of which failed to get me rolling in the proverbial aisles and indeed gave me pause for thought as to why anybody had bothered. Despite its title I didn’t expect The Walworth Farce to tickle any funny bones – it just isn’t that sort of play. However, it certainly made me think more than either of the other two and makes a great opening production for this new venue.