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Theatre Review Farce falls flat

PETER MASON endures a poorly constructed play that aims at satire but plummets into panto

Mates in Chelsea       
Royal Court Theatre, London       

       

THERE are the makings of a good satirical farce within this new comedy about a 30-year-old modern-day aristocrat forced to sell off the family silver as his finances come crashing around his ears.       

During a reasonably fleet and fairly amusing first half, writer Rory Mullarkey sets things up nicely with plenty of potentially comical chaos-to-come as the vacuous Viscount Bungay (Laurie Kynaston) — known to his fair-weather Chelsea friends as Tug — hatches a not-so-cunning plan to scupper attempts to sell his ancestral seat in Northumberland, which he’s desperate to hang on to.

Unfortunately everything goes up in flames in the much longer second half, not just for Tug but for the play itself.

The much-anticipated farce element falls decidedly flat, while the characters become ever-more cartoonish and so much absurdity is thrown into the mix that the easier humour of the first section is lost in a confusion of generally unfunny zaniness.

Although there are some good moments in Mates in Chelsea, and some notable lines, Mullarkey has tried so hard to incorporate so many different ingredients that we’re left with a messy dish that gets very cold, very quickly after the interval.

One of the chief problems is that the characters are so unbelievable that they fail to provide a robust framework on which to maintain the action.

Tug’s Leninist housekeeper (Amy Booth-Steel) is particularly troublesome in that respect — fiercely rebellious on the one hand and yet subserviently loyal to her upper-class master for no apparent reason — while his mother (Fenella Woolgar), all stern aristocratic practicality in the first half, is completely undone after the break by her sudden transformation into an excitable lesbian vixen.

Only Tug’s best friend Charlie, thanks chiefly to George Fouracres’ outstanding interpretation of the role, comes across as someone who — in classic Wildean or Wodehousian vein — might actually exist in real life, even if in much less exaggerated form.

As the play progresses, the people in it so rarely rise above pantomime level that everything else begins to take on a similar quality, while some silly, sub-Pythonesque excursions — including a long flight of fancy near the end — that only serve to debase things even further.    

As a result the hit-rate of the jokes plummets, the audience guffaws turn into intermittent titters, and by the end there’s a palpable sense of relief that matters have drawn to a close.

That’s a pity, for a great deal of effort has gone into this production. Hard work, however, does not guarantee good viewing, and in this case much of the enterprise has gone to waste.

Runs until December 16. Box office: (020) 7565-5000, royalcourttheatre.com.

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