Dr Faustus / School For Scandal

A few days ago the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington was on the Today programme complaining that theatres never put on productions of classic comedies any more. He moaned that while sundry obscure tragedies seemed to be gaining popularity with producers (possibly for their gory, Gothic appeal) the comedies were being totally ignored.

Nicholas Hytner from the National was standing up for London Theatre, with the slightly wussy excuse that old comedy is ‘hard,’ mainly because what people find funny is one of the most ephemeral things in the human experience. I was fuming. Bah, I thought. That’s just lazy…

Michael Billington hurrumphed at that, too, and used the examples of the under-produced She Stoops To Conquer and School For Scandal as his proof, moaning that theatres never put them on any more, two shows that Greenwich Theatre have actually included in their Autumn Season.

Admittedly She Stoops To Conquer was a bit creaky – but it warmed up in the second half and it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm on the part of the company. Besides, it was a touring production and touring shows are always a bit pot-luck for a host theatre – they can look great on paper and just not work on stage (cough, The Signalman, ahem…) I seem to be in the place every week at the moment but the reality doesn’t always live up to what I suspect the theatre’s administration team paid for. I don’t blame Greenwich Theatre if they get in a show that looks really exciting in the blurb, from a respected company, and it still doesn’t pass muster.

I was especially keen to see School for Scandal and its sister play, Dr Faustus, because it marks a return by Greenwich Theatre to actually producing its own shows after a long gap (the last one I remember was the Wesker-penned Longitude - a disappointing play, if memory serves, but well-produced.)

They’ve financed these two shows by teaming up with a company that records productions of classic texts on video for a schools audience, so the choice of plays is always going to be limited to whatever’s on the syllabus – but hey – that still leaves quite an armoury of plays to choose from, and I really hope this is going to continue as an ongoing project – if nothing because it was the first time I saw the theatre really full for something that isn’t panto or a stand up comic.

The first thing you notice about the two shows, currently in rep, is the cast size. At last – a decent number of actors, rather that the usual diet of one-man shows and manic cheapo productions where two players rush around playing 70 characters in two hours or, if you’re really lucky, the stage manager makes a brief appearance in a sheet at the end of a ghost story. I know why they have to be so small-scale, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see twelve actors on stage.

Doctor Faustus is one of the best non-panto productions I’ve seen at Greenwich Theatre, home grown or touring. It’s had time and money spent on it, and real thought has gone into making it work without falling into obvious cliches.

Proper weight is given to the text (the most important thing, given that the actual plot’s rubbish – bloke sells soul to the devil, nobs around sucking up to the crowned heads of Europe for 24 years then gets dragged off by Lucifer’s hench-demons after not listening to anyone’s advice…) and there are some really nice performances – I especially liked Mephistopheles’s world-weary minion – “you can have anything in the universe and you want that?”

The costumes work well – all-purpose Victorian (yeah, Gothic, but they get away with it) and the set, especially given that it has to work for the other show too, is excellent, though I’d have made the stage itself more solid so that the actors didn’t clump around like they had giant Blakies on their shoes.

Greenwich Theatre’s own Faustian-pact with the TV company generally works well too, with a caveat or two – the biggest of which being that it must have been forced to include the entire text – even if, frankly, some of it wasn’t Marlowe’s finest and – sorry – I’ll shock you here – I suspect most companies just cut.

To their credit, the actors clearly spent a long while trying to make the comedy rustics funny, but I find it hard to imagine it had people rolling in the aisles even in the 17th century, and (admittedly I never studied Dr F so maybe I’m wrong here and there are poignant parallels or something) I can’t see much of a reason for including them other than making the groundlings giggle. That horse scene would be the first for the chop in my fantasy production despite a truly brave performance from a guy with a bucket of water over his head and a humorous Welsh accent.

But all this is niggles. I really enjoyed the play, and if you have an evening spare, I’d recommend it.

I’m less sure about School For Scandal, as, apparently, re imagined by Adam Ant. I can see what they were trying to do with the fop-part of the ensemble, translating the mannered, hothouse salons of 18th Century London to the even more mannered New Romantic clubs of the 1980s. But they didn’t follow it through and the rest of the company were firmly set in the 1700s, which gave it an odd feel.

I confess I agreed with the school party of teenagers behind me, who didn’t really ‘get’ the crew who looked like they’d raided the panto costume store just after Andrew Pollard had nicked all the best outfits. There was a lot of rushing around, perhaps in the hope that if they did everything really fast it would make it funny, but which actually only meant there was a collective tensing from the audience every time a glass bottle or china cup came on stage, waiting for the smash.

The teenagers behind me – and myself – really liked the solidity of the older contingency – Sir Peter, Uncle Oliver and their mate (whose name I forget – hands up – I didn’t do my homework before I came and my A levels were a looooong time ago) who lent a real sense of gravitas to the play. They took their time and played it straight – and managed to squeeze what few laughs there are still to be had from the text.

I have a horrid feeling that Nicholas Hytner might have a point. I really, really want to like old comedies, and I always book up for any that come onto the programme, but maybe the world just moves on. In the same way as watching old sitcoms on Dave can be a mildly disappointing experience, I suspect that tragedy will always come down the years less scathed than comedy. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll keep going, just with fewer expectations.

Despite my niggles, both of these productions are head and shoulders above any touring show that Greenwich Theatre has brought in in the past – oh, I don’t know – five years. There is no doubting the commitment and vision here, and the production values are sumptuous. I would love to see Greenwich Theatre becoming a 100% producing house – but in the meanwhile, if we just get one or two really cracking classics per season, I may actually join, so that my tickets no longer say “Non Friend” on them…

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