‘Oh, what a super-injunction!’
Exceptional theatre in the heart of Islington since 1979 says a sign in the Old Red Lion on St John’s Street. At street-level it is a crowded local boozer but upstairs is an intimate theatre that specialises in ‘bold, dynamic and innovative’ work. It’s obviously successful – in the last year shows have transferred from this more experimental space to the West End and off-Broadway.
Playing here until 4th January is The Upstanding Member, written by Gregory Skulnick and directed by Hamish MacDougall. It is the first full-length production from Rival Theatre, which is being supported by Old Vic New Voices. There is one set, dressed as a sitting room with wing-backed arm chair, antique table, a bookcase of, you guessed it, books, and a decanter which is liberally used all evening by almost all the characters. Stuffed birds decorate the walls, as do photographs of our unnamed MP with what looks like – from where I am sitting – the Dalai Lama.
The MP’s wife arrives to find him on his knees…
It is Christmas Eve and two crooks have broken into an MP’s second home on behalf of a newspaper. They are trying to steal an incriminating mobile phone when the MP returns unexpectedly. Suddenly the two men have to hide whilst the MP comes in, speaking on another phone and already lying to his wife. Let the farce begin, as crooks hide behind coats, pretend to be window cleaners and even impersonate lawyers.
The philanderer is a stock character in this type of comedy, but it is not the typical farce that name checks the trade union UNISON in the opening exchanges. The Upstanding Member has a more nuanced approach to what could have been predictable ground. Rather than the MP’s infidelity itself we are dealing with the aftermath. No one is caught in flagrante, instead the play examines more topical territory, focusing on dodgy journalists and their interest in mobile phones (owned by other people) and cash (or cars) for ministerial access.
Stephen Omer is well-cast as the MP watching helplessly as his wife and mistress somehow meet in his own sitting room. He conveys a mixture of entitlement and cunning, willing to go along with no end of crazy schemes if they will help his cause. The one room setting copes well with the demands of farce, doors opening and new people arriving to add to the melee all through the play. Ed Sheridan plays the young lawyer Mr Graver with reserved pride. He is pleased to be completing his first super-injunction and makes the forgetting of his briefcase appear natural and unforced. Tim Dewberry is a force in every scene he is in (except those where he is hiding), bringing urgency to his role and making the unlikely plot almost believable.
The Upstanding Member has its roots in the Old Vic New Voices: 24 Hour Plays project which Skulnick entered in 2011. The basis of the plot was written in one day and though the play is topical and cutting, it is not as funny as I had expected. Hilarity is a vital part of a farce’s make up even when the play’s more immediate aim is social commentary. When I visited the audience did chuckle but never launched into the paroxysms of belly laughs that are the sound track to the most successful farces. There is little physical comedy, the jokes mainly lying in the increasingly insane lies that the characters concoct to explain their appearances in the MP’s sitting room.
The Upstanding Member is a critique of modern Britain, reflecting back to the audience an unpleasant image of a section of society in which trust has been lost. The comedic punches of the verbal wordplay do not always hit their target, and there is too much conversation – or not enough action – but by the end Skulnick cunningly brings together the different plot strands that looked like they would never be reconciled.
Farce is an underrated form of theatre that is hard to write and perform so all new productions in the genre are to be encouraged. You can still get tickets using the link below.