Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Sex and the Three Day Week – Liverpool Playhouse – 08/12/2014

When we were young and in love I thought the sun shone out of one end and butter wouldn’t melt in the other. Fifteen years of captivity later I admit it – I was wrong! 

Purists may question the necessity of creating a new version of a piece by Feydeau, but Stephen Sharkey describes his re-working of L’Hôtel du Libre Échange as “lovingly ripped off”, which says it all. Sex and the Three Day Week is a light-hearted comedy that doffs its cap to one of the great masters of 19th century theatrical farce, while resetting the action some 80 years forward to the miner’s strike and power cuts of the 1970s.

The marriages of two neighbouring couples have fallen into a rut. Philip is hen-pecked by his “little kommandant” Angela, while Catherine is frustrated because her husband Robert admits he only married her so he didn’t have to waste time on “all that”. Cue plans for a dirty weekend for Philip and Catherine. What they don’t bargain for is the appearance at the Paradise Hotel of not only Robert, but his nephew Ben, their own French maid Fanny and an elderly friend Mrs Mayhew with her menagerie à trois*.

Throw in a resident sex worker with a striking resemblance to Angela, a black market coalman and a visit from the vice squad and there’s little chance left for the night of passion Philip had planned.

Stephen Sharkey has not only mapped all the original Feydeau characters onto his own suburban cast, but has also wittily mirrored key comedy plot points, such as finding an alternative to sticking Philip’s head in the fireplace to get him covered in soot, and here it’s thunder rather than rain that triggers Mrs Mayhew’s unfortunate speech impediment.

Whilst Sharkey’s text follows Feydeau in a three act format, director Serdar Bilis has wisely placed his single interval a short way into act 2, using two short entr’actes played out on the apron to cover the scene changes. The slow burning first act sets everything up before the farce really kicks in, and we get a taster of what’s to come later between the scene change and the interval. The second part is longer but moves a lot faster and contains the majority of the traditional farcical devices.

Both Edward Harrison as Philip and David Birrell as Robert give tremendous physical performances, while Natalie Casey’s Angela and Holly are splendidly characterised, and she too hurls herself about the stage with fearless abandon. The last time I saw Casey on stage was in Abigail’s Party a couple of years ago, and here she demonstrates again her huge talent for larger than life comic performance.

The keystone in the piece has to be the conniving but hapless hotelier Sebastian, for whom Javier Marzan is a brilliant piece of casting. While Sharkey has shamelessly (and intentionally) fused together some of his favourite comedy creations from the 1970s for this role, Marzan makes it his own, and he holds the stage and plays the audience with tremendous panache.

There are returns to the Everyman & Playhouse ensemble from recent regulars Eileen O’Brien and Robin Morrissey. Morrisey’s long-limbed frame and his flair for playing awkwardness work well for the gawky Ben, pursued by Lucy Phelps’ wickedly seductive Fanny (sorry). Meanwhile Eileen O’Brien has spiced up some of Sharkey’s writing, and some of her malapropisms as Miss Mayhew, while a little bizarre, sound all the funnier for falling from her lips. If Sebastian has a slice of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel in him, then there is more than a little of Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby in O’Brien’s Miss Mayhew.

Catrin Allen is a suitably quailing Catherine, sapped of all self esteem by her inattentive husband and hiding behind frumpy hair and glasses, but we suspect a passion beats within if Philip can only rekindle it.  Graeme Rooney ably fills a series of smaller roles, defined by a range of accents and costumes and a wig that makes a bid for freedom. Ken Dodd voices Miss Mayhew’s Mynah and I love the nifty way that he manages to get a curtain call along with the rest of the cast.

Clever settings by Hannah Clark enable us to see into the rooms of the seedy Paradise Hotel and even zoom in on the action when needed. Look out for some lovely business with a broken chair, which laughs at the suspension of belief the set requires.

Sex and the Three Day Week keeps audiences laughing pretty much from the start and is just the thing for a cold winter evening when you feel like a laugh but need an alternative from wall-to-wall panto. It continues at Liverpool Playhouse until 10th January 2015.

* Yes – I really do mean menagerie...

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