Rookery Nook is a comedy of manners and mishaps which will not fail to delight even the most hard-hearted of theatre-goers. This raucous farce was written in 1926 and is now being revived in a touring production by the Oxford Stage Company, who have a good history of digging up neglected theatrical gems and whose recent successes include The Quare Fellow at the Tricycle Theatre.
Rookery Nook was written by Ben Travers, a well-known writer of his time who produced a large quantity of plays, novels and screenplays from 1919 through to the 1940s. Premiering in 1926, this play did very well in the West End, but was quickly turned into an even more successful film; coming out in 1930, it “became the first talkie to score at the box office.” The Oxford Stage production is directed by Dominic Dromgoole, the man due to take the reigns from Mark Rylance at the Globe.
While it’s not hard to see why this play was so successful in the 1920s, what is surprising is how well it has aged. It has all the traditional ingredients of farce: people running in and out of doors, compromising situations and near misses etc… However it is very funny in a way that many modern farces are not. This is because Dromgoogle and his team have not made much of an attempt to modernise it; and their faith in the play’s old fashioned charm pays off.
Just as characters in the films of the 1930s seem to speak very fast, with that clear, clipped, received English tone which now appears rather amusing, so do the characters in this production. (It takes a while to tune in to the pace of things; the jokes come so thick and fast that you do have to concentrate or risk missing out). However the cast manage to adopt this bygone tone without it ever feeling hackneyed or stereotyped and this success is down to some fantastic performances.
The entire cast were on good form; there were however several actors who helped elevate this above what you might expect from such a production. As Gerald Popkiss, Benjamin Davies played the bumbling fool of a hero to perfection. And playing Clive Popkiss, William Mannering was just wonderful; conjuring up images of Noel Coward as he lounged about in his smoking jacket or sported a tuxedo, dancing around the stage with an air of Fred Astaire. In the play, these two are cousins who find themselves in a very compromising position. Their conversations together, though conducted at incredible speed, felt effortless; this patter probably took a good deal of rehearsal to get right, but they pulled it off – there was a real rhythm to their comedy which was not only funny but made them very engaging as characters.
Richard Henders played the nervous and brow-beaten Harold Twine faultlessly. This kind of physical comedy can appear very simple but is fiendishly difficult to sustain and his Harold Twine twitches, hops and cowers all over the stage to marvellous effect. As his wife Gertrude Twine, Fiona Battisby also did a strong job at being suitably terrifying and dragon-like.
As Rhoda Marley, the girl who starts all the trouble, Jane Murphy came across as cleverly charming; leading the audience in a merry dance so that you can never be sure if the two cousins are being had or if she is really the nave little thing she sometimes appears.
The set too is very well done, giving a great sense of the 1920s, and being well designed for farce (doors in abundance). Furthermore the layout allows the characters to practically dance around the stage in a series of complex routines.
In the wrong hands, with the wrong cast, this could have been a disaster, but what OSC have created is in fact a joyous, laugh out loud affair, as intricate and sweet as a piece of spun sugar. Yes, there’s very little substance to it, but if all you want are wonderful performances (from William Mannering especially), well-crafted comic scenarios and rich and rapid dialogue then this is definitely the production to catch.