Lauren (Katherine Rodden) is not so much having a bad day but a bad month. Out of work and lost somewhere in a sea of Bond Street shopping and empty bottles of Sainsbury’s Finest Merlot, she passes the time drunk and rehearsing monologues by Oscar Wilde. But just as she feels she about to have an epiphany her mother (Rachel Dobell) rudely barges in with some shocking news – she’s divorcing. Soon what follows is a farce of family dysfunctions, divorce lawyers-cum-marriage counsellors, feisty suitors, and some other guy whose name eludes me.
In her programme notes playwright and resident company member Rodden mentions that her goal here is to create a modern farce in the style of Wilde or Noel Coward – updating class-based comedy for a modern age. But you needn’t read the programme notes to have sussed that out. Sarah Pitard’s stage is a handsome collection of 1940s Chinoiserie furniture complete with an elegant painting of the period, even if it is cluttered with the debris from Lauren’s despair. There’s even Coward playing over the theatre’s sound system between scenes. Yet despite Rodden and the indomitable Paradigm Theatre Company’s efforts, A Woman of No Importance… is an example of just how difficult it is to perfect farce, even when it’s something so well meaning and modern as this.
There is very little wrong with the writing. In fact Rodden’s text delivers a bevy of sharp and sassy one-liners that will keep you chuckling or, in some cases, laughing out loud throughout. The only criticism is that towards the end it succumbs to what is so easily done with farce – it all gets a bit too over the top that it looses the charm it held the audience with for the first four fifths of the play with. But more so it’s the execution that lets it fall short of what its trying to be.
There are moments when the cast’s comic-timing is a little off. Snappy little lines are sometimes not delivered as quicksilver as the script begs for causing some of the gags to arrive a little stilted. Also, the cast often don’t react too well to the audience, so when there are big laughs you all too quickly miss the next line because there isn’t a pause enough it above the patrons’ bellows. And when it comes to the physical comedy element it feels far too rehearsed and laboured. Slapstick begs a spontaneous and unsuspecting energy to it and Paradigm’s crew lacks just that. Knowing where the kicks are going to come from next spoils the punch-line, and this stops what should have been a riotous climax from being so.
But there are many saving graces to the show that makes Paradigm’s effort very worthy and still manages to result in an enjoyable evening. Cat Robey’s direction, although admitting it’s her first time doing farce, manages to pick out smaller details which augment Rodden’s witty text – everything from lawyer Geoffrey’s errant tongue, played wonderfully weaselly by Matt Houlihan, to some well placed interactions with some well placed props. Robey has always been a director who knows that God is in the detail and despite venturing into new territory A Woman of No Importance… is no exception.
The cast also hold themselves generally very well. Rodden’s Lauren is sufficiently whiney, self-absorbed, but charming enough for us to sympathise with her plight but willing indulge in a schadenfreude that makes her mishaps comically worthwhile. But it’s Alan Booty, playing Lauren’s father, that really steals the show. He has a monolithic presence on such a small stage whose persona as the oversexed toff dad is as boisterous as the laughs he brings about. His deliveries are always light, playful, and more often than not spot on making him a real delight to have on stage.
A Woman of No Importance… is a production on not quite perfection. It’s such a shame because it really tries to be, and with tighter execution it really could have been the formidable modern farce it wants to be. But none the less it’s still a sterling effort that, despite its faults, will push away the February gloom with charm and gusto.
A Woman on No Importance…or Somewhat Importance Anyhow plays at the Hen and Chickens, London, N1 2NA, until 23 February 2013. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book visit www.unrestrictedview.co.uk.