Key For Two: Playing With Polygamy

All elements of good comedy are unlocked in this well-crafted romp of romance gone awry

“Wot’s a woman to do?” Times are bad. It’s Thatcher’s recession, just as bad as the one we’ve been told we have now. Harriet’s husband proved to be the worst of crooks. But thanks to the pill, this ‘80s divorcée can conjugate her two lovers to keep her life in complete sentences, giving a new definition to “working double shifts”.

The result is domestic room comedy with a whole new grammar, mastered to hilarious perfection in John Chapman and Dave Freeman’s Key for Two, running through 29 June at Vienna’s English Theatre.

The art of farce that started as “stuffing”, as comic interludes, like Lazzi from Commedia d’ellarte, has clearly evolved into a comic genre all its own, with modern writers such as John Osborne anarchising it and Alan Ayckbourn spinning it into metafiction.

Left to right: Alec, played by James Barron and Matthew Carter as Richard | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

Left to right: Alec, played by James Barron and Matthew Carter as Richard | Photo: Vienna’s English Theatre

Where Beaumarchais, Molière and Nestroy used it to lance the nobility, Chapman and Freeman furnish the genre gently in the open-minded bedchamber of the post World War II Everyman. Here, Wilde and Coward drawing rooms have vanished. So have the dandies and the epigrams.

This humour is more situational and physical, with ribbons of repartee “trippling” off colloquial tongues. But as in this thoroughly engaging romp, we know what is implied:

Anne: And do you … err … with Alec?

Harriet: Yes, I “err” with both of them. But not at the same time.

Key For Two reaches the pinnacle of Chapman’s prolific life. He didn’t merely write plays, but was a playwright, a master craftsman. And Key For Two is very well wrought.

We know from Ionesco’s Bald Soprano that if, “It’s the doorbell,” then, “It means there’s somebody there.” Farce is about the swinging doors and carousing in, over and under the beds. The actors hither, thither and double-take like rabbits popping out of warrens. Keeping tally of who does what through which of the five doors is like keeping track of chickens while they hatch.

There’s the innuendo of those interminable Carry On films that Freeman wrote in the ‘60s, but by Act Two, Harriet and Anne are having multiple paroxysms. The laughs swell in synch to the well-honed ensemble’s impeccable timing, while Chapman and Freeman masterfully manoeuvre the plot to its apoplectic climax.

The set, designed by Terry Parsons, is true to the script: Elegant Regency flat in Brighton. The bedroom is on a raised dais. U.R. leads into the bathroom. The wall around the bedroom is imagined and the rest of the stage below is part of the sitting room. Parsons is given little room to romp in, but has designed an exquisite, retro set, while managing to keep it colourfully contemporary, and the costumes are consistently bespoke.

The key to farce is that there are no superfluous furnishings and props; everything is there for a reason.

Keith Myers’ direction brings integrity to the script. He has cast well and drawn out the idiosyncrasies of the actor’s clearly delineated characters. The blocking is pristine, the dialects are clear and the mise en scène skilfully orchestrated. Its clear Myers is steeped in the cultural roots of this genre.

Gay divorcee Harriet is played unflappably by Joy Brook, who looks under 40 “… and will probably continue looking so for years to come.” She doesn’t miss a beat and is the fulcrum upon which this play seesaws. She feeds Gordon Alec’s fish and Alec Gordon’s eggs, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

And there are plenty: As a hobby chicken farmer who runs a successful advertising agency, Gordon keeps Harriet copiously supplied, while complaining of the cost of her upkeep.

As a turned ankle turns Robin Sebastian’s kinetic performance to a plaintive whimper the episode becomes the turning of the plot.

Alec is North Country big, bluff, and owner of a fleet of trawlers played admirably, robustly by James Barron, navigating the stage with the keenness and generosity of a high-speed cruiser.

We get the impression Harriet’s dicing it a bit fine, jotting in her diary, “Eggs away five-thirty. Fish arrives at six”. Harriet’s “given up for dead” friend Anne arrives separated from her New Zealand husband, Richard. Maxine Gregory plays Anne as a female factotum with verve and nonchalance, relishing anything the pop-up spouses deliver.

Richard, a vet who “administers to half the sheep on South Island”, then turns up himself, bearing gifts of Johnny Walker scotch he’s somehow mistaken for chocolates. He plays with dipsomaniacal empathy, cosying up to a mink that has “shuffled off ‘is mortal coil”. He is hilarious.

And as the wives, Magda then Mildred, inevitably show up looking for their ‘itinerant’ husbands, the house inexplicably, but somehow credibly, morphs into a nursing home. Alex Caley acts with disdain and Lainey Shaw with convincing North Country bombast. They are generous foils with fine characterisations.

This Viennese audience proved well-tuned to farce, so save us the Dickens in these Hard Times and bring on the cheer of the Pantomime.


Key for Two 

Through 29 June


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