Review: The Good and Faithful Servant

MATT KILROY ‘just wasn’t in the mood to empathise’.

Corpus Playroom Emma Makinson Theatre

2nd – 6th February, 9.30pm, Corpus Christi Playroom. £5-6.

Directed by Emma Violet Makinson


I think I know three things about Joe Orton:

1)    He was gay.
2)    He was quite angry with society, and wrote black comedies to that effect.
3) He is dead.
The publicity for The Good and Faithful Servant describes it as his ‘most satirical and autobiographical comedy’, so I was a little surprised by the absence of homosexuality, anger, and sometimes comedy. There was some death, though, and it was quite black.

Thank goodness for that.

The servant in question, George Buchanan, is the oldest company employee, shepherded towards retirement by ghastly HR woman Mrs Vealfoy. He discovers a (hopeless) family he never knew he had, watches on as his slimy son Ray impregnates and is forced to marry fellow employee Debbie, and generally can’t cope with his dreary, wasted life as he coughs his way to the grave.

Yes, this is satire, but it is satire more applicable to Orton’s repressed 1960s than to our own enlightened times – a fact which defuses the play’s bitter anger, and relegates it to an absurd, almost Beckett-like farce. However well-acted, we young, ambitious Cambridge students cannot share Buchanan’s despair – it is not our despair, and so the script loses poignancy and bite.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to empathise. Silver-tongued Varsity reviewer Edward Herring had amusingly refused to let me in to the Corpus Playroom. Such prank-wankery may have lodged my, um, twat-hat firmly on my head.

Luckily, strong acting and direction put flesh on a spindly theatrical skeleton. The young characters were good fun: Rosalie Hayes’ demurely naive Debbie clashed nicely with Michael Christie’s satisfyingly greasy and irritating Ray. (In the program Michael admits spending ‘too much time on the internet’ and it shows…). Actors playing older characters had a more difficult task. Fresh-faced Lewis Owen, as Buchanan, inched around the stage like a puppet through treacle, his voicebox tearing itself to shreds; but no amount of talcum powder applied to his hair (or, accidentally, to his right ear) could age him enough.

Makinson’s direction of the more energetic scenes made good use of an overcrowded stage, but tortuous scene changes could scarcely be compensated for by a fucking great soundtrack. Yet the play as a whole, with its world-weary descent towards the inevitable, struggled to rouse more than laughs from its audience. Only the occasional fantastic, deadpan line – one about toast springs to mind – leapt out from a thicket of drab dialogue.

The show’s saving grace, however, was Olivia Crellin’s deliciously prim Mrs Vealfoy, a sugar-coated tyrant in pink. Her precise little mannerisms, her self-congratulatory little chuckles, her guilty stuffing of a naughty little chocolate into her mouth, they all animated scenes which threatened to drag, and it is for the pleasure of her performance that I would urge you to go and see the show. Perhaps you will empathise where I failed.