REVIEW: The Play’s the Thing

The Pembroke Players have crafted a flawed but undeniably fun production of an early Wodehousian gem, says Jamie P. Robson.

ADC Cambridge Comedy Corpus Playroom Drama farce Pembroke College Pembroke New Cellars pembroke players student theatre the play's the thing

There is something particularly Cambridge about high society farces, it seems.

Maybe as performers and spectators we find it easy to identify with characters whose farcical bourgeois experiences are only a little removed from the nature of our own problems in the bubble of a Cambridge term. Perhaps the fact that Fry and Laurie — both Cambridge alumni — starred in a TV adaptation of Wodehouse’s very own Jeeves and Wooster is a testimony to this idea. Or maybe they’re just damn good fun. The Play’s the Thing is a typical Wodehousian affair in its intelligence and wit, and despite some rough aspects, Michael Tigchelaar’s production offers an enjoyable romp of witty exchanges and sharp meta-theatricality.

The ever-smug Sandor Turai (Joe Sefton) and his collaborator (Mansky, played by Joseph Prentice) have brought their protege composer, Adam (Benedict Welch), on a trip to surprise the young man’s fiancee. As per the demands of farce, the future of Adam’s engagement is soon jeopardised, and Turai endeavours to engineer a happy conclusion for the couple. The play, throughout, is peppered with fourth-wall straining comments on the art of theatre — Turai, for example, begins the play ruminating on the difficulty of writing the start of a play, then stands up and introduces himself — seasoning the action with an almost post-modern layer of mischievously self-deconstructing comedy.

Joe Sefton and Joe Prentice (Image Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Sefton’s Turai sports a mostly convincing Sherlockian arrogance, along with the accompanying social skills; and something, also, of the man’s playfulness is successfully mined — though, sadly, not quite enough. He is supposed to be a magnetic puppeteer, dancing around the other characters, (benevolently) manipulating them all; but the potential dynamism of the man is stifled by Sefton’s slightly under-enunciated delivery, which fails to meet the elocutionary demands of the fast-talking part. The small size of the venue luckily aids the audience in following the dialogue, but the early, Turai-dominated parts of the play are nevertheless not as engaging as they might have been.

Joe Prentice, Will Hall and Joe Sefton (Image Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Robert Eyers and Emma Corrin, however, substantially energise the play upon their entrance, managing to steal the scene even when their dialogue is initially entirely off-stage. Eyers’ Almady is a ‘petticoat-chasing’ old fool, a ham actor whose self-pitying utterances and tear-soaked advances towards his former lover Ilona comprise some of the funniest moments in the play. Ilona (Corrin) meanwhile delights with her oddly charming haughtiness, delivering amusing barbs and melodramatic exclamations in wonderfully clipped Received Pronunciation. Both are assured comic performances, and the play’s quality escalates as the two of them are given more and more stage time. Will Hall, too, deserves commendation for his portrayal of the manor’s butler. Moving slowly about the stage with the assurance of someone who refuses to do his job with anything except the utmost professional care, Hall excels in capturing the unflappable stoicism and employer-centred bemusement of an ideal Wodehousian butler.

Emma Corrin and Robert Eyers (Image Credit: Johannes Hjorth)

Some other minor niggles (slightly lengthy between-scene set changes, for instance) can be levelled at the production, preventing it from attaining true greatness, yet the (genuinely laudable) quality of most of the play’s key performances nonetheless ensures the The Play’s the Thing remains consistently funny, and worth a visit.

3.5/5 stars