Do yourself a favour if you’re thinking of going to Thark: don’t look it up on Wikipedia. The description of the plot runs to four convoluted paragraphs and won’t leave you any the wiser.
What you need to know is it’s a 1920s farce of the kind that was the forerunner to all those ‘Whoops Vicar There Go My Trousers’ door-banging mid-century comedies and that even by pre-war standards, the characters are all stereotypes. The women are two ‘popsies’ and two ‘dragons’, there are two butlers, two chinless toffs and, played to the hilt with what in pre-Operation Yewtree days we would have called a ‘roguish twinkle’ by Clive Francis, one randy old git.
Even if written as a potboiler, it’s brought sparkily to the boil both by Clive Francis’s own adaptation of the script, and Eleanor Rhode’s spirited direction which blows away the dust from the piece with sheer attack. Farce treads a fine line between brisk and overblown but the pace and delivery here are cleverly measured just shy enough of overacting to allow you to engage with the characters and care about the outcome.
And engage you must, because the second act plunges them into the haunted house itself, called Thark – there’s a suggestion that, with the name, author Ben Travers was trying to create the strangled vocal cry of someone who had seen a ghost. It comes complete with a convincing thunderstorm, ghoulish servants and strange noises in the night all wonderfully rendered by George Dennis’s sound design and played out on Cherry Truluck’s imaginative open and perspective-stretching diagonal set – a very successful antidote to the five-door confined proscenium arch staging the writer would have envisaged.
Clive Francis is clearly enjoying himself hugely as the rakish Sir Hector Benbow and it’s infectious, but we also warmed to the two younger men. Richard Beanland makes a hesitant and gauche suitor and, playing Sir Hector’s nephew Ronny who has to manage all the cover-ups and hastily-invented lies on which farce relies, is a marvellous Woosterish turn by James Dutton in a voice seemingly borrowed directly from Hugh Laurie.
Making the whole evening even more worthwhile of course, is the chance to be at the excellent Park Theatre: it’s within sight of the entrance to the tube, the seating’s as comfortable as the Donmar, the bar and staff are charming, the food’s tasty and not pre-packed, ticket and drink prices are reasonable and there’s a theatre dog.
There really should be one in every London postcode.