Beyond a Joke

Aug 8 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  Dead funny

Saughtonhall United Reformed Church (Venue 273) Mon 4 – Sat 9 Aug 2014

Saughtonhall Drama Group extract a large amount of humour from their production of Derek Benfield’s 1979 farce Beyond a Joke.

Betty Meston, Scott Kerr, Sarah Howley, Murray Petrie; Judith Petrie, Colin Mitchell; Gavin Watson and Chris Mitchell. Photo Derek Benfield

Betty Meston, Scott Kerr, Sarah Howley, Murray Petrie; Judith Petrie, Colin Mitchell, Gavin Watson and Chris Mitchell. Photo Derek Benfield

The situation is not the most robust at first glance. Andrew and Jane are looking forward to the weekend in their house and garden in the country. They seem to be more put out by the imminent arrival of their daughter’s boyfriend Geoff than by the fact that people who come to the house keep dying – and there may be at least one unaccounted-for body lying around….

The production is keen to stress a similarity to Fawlty Towers, even down to cheekily referencing that programme’s theme tune. However, Derek Benfield’s play is a farce that owes little to the frenetic quality of John Cleese’s manic creation. While there is admittedly one occasion of a vicar being shoved into a cupboard, much of the intrigue comes from a creepy, disquieting and very English attitude that recalls Giles Cooper or even N.F. Simpson more than it does Ray Cooney.

The family seem only mildly perturbed by the series of untimely deaths that have taken place in their house, insisting that it is bad luck which has seen four visitors die – or is it five? Or even six? It could have happened to anyone, they declare, waiting to inform the police until their favourite constable is available, and berating Geoff for lack of sympathy when he is understandably alarmed.

The central performances add to this creepiness. Gavin Watson’s Andrew is all jocularity and bonhomie, while the excellent Chris Mitchell gives Jane an understated, almost eerie quality. Sarah Howley is effective as their spoilt, pouty daughter Sally.

a pleasing physical dexterity

Betty Meston has a more straightforward turn as Andrew’s somewhat distracted sister Sarah, and she carries this off with excellent timing. Colin Mitchell’s vicar is much more of a stock farce character, and as a result it is never completely convincing despite his appropriately distracted aura.

Scott Kerr has the advantage of having the most overtly comedic role, and he seizes this opportunity, inhabiting the part of the nonplussed Geoff completely and displaying a pleasing physical dexterity.

The arrival of Geoff’s parents in the second act seems dramatically redundant unless this is taken as a cue to up the pace and add a more headlong air to proceedings. This fails to happen, and as a result Judith Petrie and Murray Petrie are not given enough to do in the roles. However, they do their best to extract the humour from the situation.

This failure to increase the speed slightly means that the second half does not quite live up to the promise of what has been an accomplished first act. This is due more to structural faults in the writing than to shortcomings in the production. The performance is never less than satisfactory and director Morag Simpson marshals her troops diligently throughout.

The lighting and sound by Katherine Naish and Morag Stevenson are very proficient, while Liz Swinburne and Keith Wilson’s split set featuring both house and garden is a particularly impressive construction.

Throughout, there is a rhythm and feel to the performance that adds to the believability of the relationships, however ludicrous the events on stage may be. There are also more than enough laughs to keep anyone satisfied.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes
Saughtonhall United Reformed Church (Venue 273), 87 Saughtonhall Drive, EH12 5TR
Mon 4 – Sat 9 Aug 2014
Daily at 19.30; Sat matinee at 14.30
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