Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime, The Archway Theatre, Horley, March 2
It’s been said before, but you can get away with a lot in comedy.
Even in this hyper-sensitive age of ‘political correctness’ and rampant offence-taking, a genuinely funny joke can get a laugh no matter how distasteful the subject matter may be.
War, disease, alcoholism and even murder – all these themes can be used for comedy if a humorist is skilled enough.
So Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime, written by Constance Cox and performed by the Archway Theatre Company, is a success.
Adapted from a story by Oscar Wilde, the play is about a wealthy young man in 1890s London who plans to kill someone – and it’s simply hilarious.
Taking place entirely on a nicely designed drawing room set, the tale begins with Lord Arthur Saville looking forward to his marriage to Sybil Merton.
Unfortunately for Arthur, Sybil’s overbearing mother, Lady Julia Merton, wants to look into his soul before the wedding takes place.
She is convinced that a fortune-teller by the name of Mr Podgers can learn everything about a person – past, present and future – by studying their hand and she demands that Arthur takes the test.
Arthur gives Mr Podgers his hand and the clairvoyant tells him privately that he is destined to murder someone.
Quickly accepting the prediction as fact, Arthur decides to get the murder out of the way before the wedding. He reasons that it would upset and surprise Sybil if he became a murderer afterwards.
So, together with his sardonic butler Baines and a dim-witted anarchist named Herr Winkelkopf, Arthur comes up with a variety of hare-brained schemes to bump someone off.
With its seemingly grim subject matter this play has the potential to be a biting black comedy about a cold and calculating upper class.
Instead, it’s actually a lighthearted and silly satire about Victorian morality and the desire to maintain an English sense of propriety, even when doing something monstrous.
As soon as murder becomes an option, the characters simply do not behave like real people would. They use the event, not to meditate on any serious ethical considerations, but as an excuse for witty banter, observations about manners and self-congratulatory statements.
It’s the kind of show that requires precise comic timing and an ability to deliver cheerful, snappy dialogue without acknowledging any deeper meaning that the audience might pick up on.
As expected, the Archway cast pull this off very well, committing to their roles fully and making their characters believable, but only in the surreal, slightly cartoonish world they inhabit.
Stuart Finlayson is delightful as Arthur, conveying the refined wimpiness you’d expect from one of Wilde’s rich young men.
Steph Reeves is similarly funny as the charming, yet somewhat spoiled, Sybil, while John Freeman gives the servant Baines a dryly amusing sense of superiority.
Chris Butler (Mr Podgers), Viv Short (Lady Windermere), Sue Sherwin (Lady Clementina) and Sandra Gregory (Nellie) provide strong support, fleshing their secondary characters out enough so that we actually care if Arthur selects one as his victim.
Bob Comolli gets the same result as the happily confused Dean of Paddington.
In contrast, Jackie Curran is suitably unfriendly as the pushy matriarch Lady Julia, presenting a character who we might secretly want Arthur to get rid of.
However, it’s Robert Gregory as Herr Winkelkopf who probably makes the biggest impression in the play. He’s the most obviously comical character, speaking with a thick accent, stumbling around the stage like an excited toddler and making ridiculous political statements.
And his inventions threaten to explode at inconvenient times, which really makes the audience pay attention.
Overall then, Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime is a lot of fun.
Director Felicity Westmacott maintains a brisk pace throughout and the comedy doesn’t noticeably sag at any point.
In fact, thanks to the Archway team, the show keeps building to a comical crescendo until it eventually ends with a bang.
The next show at The Archway Theatre is Stones in His Pockets from March 28 to April 8.
Click here to find out more.
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