Perusing the programme for The Comedy of Terrors before the curtain rises gives a hint of the complexities to come. Only two actors are credited for a play that appears to feature five characters. John Goodrum is down to play ‘The Joneses’ whilst ‘The Smiths,’ are credited to Susan Earnshaw. Yes this is a farce with a cast of only two, set in the Greenwich Theatre – coincidentally the exact same theatre in which it is being performed…
Written by the male lead and directed with brio by David Gilbrook, the plot of Rumpus Theatre’s The Comedy of Terrors cannot easily be summarised – which of course is exactly how it should be. Farces thrive on complications and this has complications aplenty coming out of its theatrical storage chest – one of the few props used in the play.
The characters we first meet are Jo Smith and Beverley Jones. Beverley’s the man – his mother had wanted a girl. (He got off lightly, wait until you hear the names of his brothers). We’re in the theatre and Jo has been called to audition by theatre director Vyvian Jones for a part in a farce called Keep You Hands to Yourself. Or so she thinks…
Complications arise immediately – these are not spoilers as they are announced in the introduction to the play on the website. Jo discovers that it is not Vyvian that she is meeting, but his identical twin brother Beverley. Why does Beverley want to meet Jo, whom he has never met before? Because he wants her to lie for him to his brother Vyvian. About what? Well, Beverley is keen for her to assuage Vyvian’s suspicions and announce that they have not slept together. But they haven’t! They’ve only just met! Good point. But Beverley has slept with…Jo’s identical twin sister, Fiona. Twins, and lots of them, the beloved plot device of everyone from Shakespeare to Schwartzenegger and De Vito.
You don’t have to have written a PHd thesis on Farces: Aristophanes to Frayn to be unsurprised when both Vyvian and Fiona turn up, although the later arrival of Beverley and Vyvian’s identical younger brother Janet is unexpected. Farce works when no matter how improbable the plot, it remains within the realms of possibility. A set of identical twins? Possible. Two sets of identical twins? Improbable. An identical younger brother who can’t be distinguished from the identical twins? Now we’re verging into impossible.
But the script recognises the absurdities with which it is laced, and mocks itself throughout. Characters have to go off stage for long periods to allow another one to come on. At one point Jo asks Janet if he often gets together in one room with his brothers. ‘Not if we can help it,’ he answers drolly.
The plot revolves around a cornerstone of farce – secrets and lies about a relationship. But one aspect to the comedy jars. Vyvian is a theatre director and Jo is an actor – both perfect occupations for a farceur. Beverley though is a social worker who runs a hostel for ex-prostitutes. The woman with whom he slept – and about whom he is asking Jo to lie – is one of his charges. This gives a more problematic context than just keeping the infidelity from his fiancee.
With each actor playing two (or even three) roles it is an opportunity to enjoy the way that they portray the different characters. Earnshaw has no help from any costume changes yet the two sisters are carefully delineated. Goodrun is given a little sartorial help to differentiate his brothers, but still plays each as an individual. When the characters rush back on stage from behind the burgundy backdrop there is little doubt which of the siblings is being presented, which makes it surprising that the characters in the play don’t recognise each other more easily.
You probably haven’t seen a play with this collection of characters – a devil worshipper and a social worker stand out as unlikely to often star in the same production, so full marks for originality. The entries and exits of the two actors are cleverly manipulated and voice recordings are well used to suggest that characters are in other parts of the theatre. Seeing two actors play so many roles is impressive and this element is the highlight of the show. From the start the audience and the cast are in on the joke – There’s only two of them! This is a different approach to most farces which create humour out of the blind unawareness of the characters to the bigger picture. The Comedy of Terrors is built on coincidences that stretch the disbelief muscle, but as the script points out coincidence has been much used by comic playwrights over the centuries. With added theatre in-jokes and a demonstration of how not to perform Shakespeare this will appeal most to thespians and anyone who has an identical twin brother or sister they can’t shake off.
At the Greenwich Theatre, London until 25th January