There’s a moment near the beginning of The Duck House when you think it could be a scalpel-sharp satire on the political system: Ben Miller delivers a monologue to the fourth wall where he’s in his stand-up element and the glancing blows at politicians caught with their pants down, snouts in the trough or hands in the till are highly amusing.
Regrettably, writers Dan Patterson and Colin Swash have opted to expand Miller’s topical rant into a two-act period farce with stock characters, plot and dialogue so lame and fatuous it’s beginning to make Barking In Essex look classy. Since House of Cards and The Thick of It, perhaps television is the natural home of political satire – not even the well-loved Yes Minister was improved by a West End staging.
Required to plough through the door-slamming, double-taking, trouser-dropping, identity-mistaking nonsense of the plot, Miller jacks up his performance into an eye-rolling, head popping caricature of Basil Fawlty and the rest of the cast follow his increasingly frantic lead until it’s exhausting to watch.
The very fine Nancy Carroll starts convincingly as a cool and unflappable SamCam, and her upper class leanings towards the Conservative party while a Labour politican’s wife are splendidly done, but even she goes off the rails at the end. Debbie Chazen is a wonderful comic actress and if the script let her could probably make significantly more of the illegal immigrant cleaner Ludmilla as could delightful X-Factor finalist Diana Vickers with her combined acupuncturist and dominatrix whose sadistic armoury includes whips, gags, paddles and a sharp and penetrative Blackburn accent.
Also at the centre of things is Simon Shepherd playing a stuffed-shirt Tory grandee whose weaknesses are exploited by practically everyone else in the cast and suffering ignominies even greater than when he was sacked from The Sound of Music after only two performances.
Although the MPs expenses scandal around which the play was written dates from 2009, there’s a nice technique in weaving in references to politicians whose headlines came later – nifty swipes at Nick Clegg, of course, a good one about Andrew Mitchell “so quiet, rides a bike, thinks it keeps him in with the plebs”, but it flags a bit with soft and obvious targets like John Prescott’s weight or George Osborne’s wealth. Bizarrely, Michael Gove remains unscathed.
If it’s a farce, it’s not a good enough one, and if it’s satire it seems to have missed its target by about four years and a hundred episodes of Have I Got News For You.
The Duck House continues in repertoire at the Vaudeville until 29 March 2014. Tickets from many sources with offers around £20 including on the theatre website. We saw the play on complimentary tickets from Jo Allan PR.