Putting on a farce is always a risk but if anyone can rise to the challenge, Matthew Parker surely can. He is no stranger to taking risks. As Artistic Director of The Hope Theatre, his last in-house production was the intense and macabre Brimstone and Treacle by Denis Potter. The play was initially banned by the BBC on its release in 1976 due to its shocking and disturbing content. Parker’s five-star success was partly due to his ability to inject humour into the piece.
There is no gruesome content for this Christmas offering being staged at Drayton Arms Theatre. Instead Parker is intent on bringing out as much humour as possible. Sitting together in The Hope Theatre, Parker gives an overview of the play.
He explains that THARK is the name of a haunted house. “It’s a strange play in the sense that it has three acts but only the third act is set in Thark, the other two are in Mayfair. In the first two acts, the characters are talking about the haunted house, then they go to Thark.”
Drayton is perfect for it, because, unlike The Hope, it uses a traditional end on stage. The black box space has got the width needed with a bit of depth and raked seating. In fact, the set is the same size as the whole of The Hope, “so where would we put the audience” asks Matthew. Matthew has a holistic concept for the play where even the décor of the pub fits in nicely. He describes it as “… curly swirly Victorian art deco-ey décor and mirrors which matches the set.”
The set has four doors which Matthew describes as a “fast set” essential for farce. Written by Ben Travers, it is one of the famous Aldwych farces, so named because they were performed at Aldwych Theatre in the 20s and 30s. It has all the classic elements of a farce; mistaken identity, fast pace, lots of doors, lots of physical comedy and clowning. “And that tradition of women being much smarter than the men” adds Matthew. “The men are idiots. It’s a tradition that comes from Restoration comedy, the women know what’s going on, men are buggering it up and trying to hide it. Restoration Comedy came at a time when women were starting to perform very strong, clever roles and the farces of the late Victorian era and early twentieth century followed that tradition. The men are idiots and the women have control”
One of things that is really challenging about directing farce is to keep the audience one step ahead of the characters at all time. Matthew explains “they have to know what’s going wrong as it goes wrong otherwise it won’t work. I have to signpost clearly.” Then he adds “I work a lot with rhythm of language and speech. With punchlines, you have to hit them and follow the rhythm to get that punch line. With physical comedy, when there are no words, it has to be incredibly specific and clear, clowning has to be really clear. The show is heightened naturalism not realism.”
Parker has immense energy, his body clock is very fast. His background and training in acting shows in the clarity of his voice which is still crystal even when he’s gabbling ten-to-the-dozen. He’s usually flamboyantly waving his hands but uncharacteristically they are still. He’s sitting on them which accounts for his bolt upright posture. “It slows me down” he explains, but not so anyone would notice.
Parker explains further about his work on rhythm. “I wait to see what the actors are doing, then shape it, sometimes it’s a very musical process.” Matthew stands up to demonstrate. “It might be waltz, but I want a march. Equally weighted beats are quite tricky because actors want to make everything real, it’s in their training, but it’s not real. They get to learn new techniques.” Even their posture must be exaggerated for farce. The energetic Parker cannot resist standing up again to show how the actor might have to stand. He’s contrapposto, like a statue of David (with clothes on).
He’s back sitting on his hands and talking about how he’s affecting the audience breath. “In Brimstone and Treacle it speeds up, slows it down, makes them laugh, or makes them gasp. The furthest I’m going to go, will get people to actually scream. People responded by making noises, accidentally, and then laughed as a result to get rid of it. When the devil looked at the audience in a certain way, he got incredibly different vocal reactions. Some were silent”.
It seems that Parker cannot guarantee the response, but he firmly believes people are musical. “They have their own eternal rhythm based on heartbeat, their inner monologue, some very fast, some very slow. Working with actors, I have to change the inner rhythm to suit the character.” He adds that Fergus Leathem (playing the devil in Brimstone and Treacle) was incredibly laid back in real life. “I needed him to be so tight, so I talked to him about him speeding up his rhythm, I’d bang drums, bang the wall, and put music on to direct him”.
Parker doesn’t know what is in there until he starts working with people. With THARK most have quite a fast rhythm. “It has to be fast, light and bright like champagne, bubbling away never stopping” says Parker. “In farce I’m looking at the rhythm of dialogue, the language which you have to follow and how that translates into physicality and the precision that you need. It might be step, step, hand on the chair three times and the audience laugh more the third time because they have understood the rhythm. It’s like a two-hour dance." He notes that how we read a stage is way more physical than we would think. "55% is what we’re seeing, it’s the physicality and 33% is the sound of it. The remaining 12% are the words that people are saying. The words are less important than how they and what they are doing while they say it.”
To get the period feel, he’s been looking at video
clips and images of the original show.
He explains “It’s done out front to audience,
not naturistic blocking, its not meant to look real,
its stage pictures.” Parker, tired of sitting on
his hands rushes off to get his pc and opens
it to show the photograph (right).
“He makes her jump and then they
all jump and the last one gets strangled.
We’ve done something very similar. It also includes a style of physical comedy called a clip clop when people are passing things between themselves, but the stage directions don’t always help very much, it might just say ‘comic business with glasses for three minutes’. We have three props, three whiskey tumblers, a soda syphon and decanter and the joke is that one character ends up getting all the drinks and the others don’t get any. Took an entire day, lasts about 3 minutes.”
Matthew has done a lot of panto scripts in which stage direction are also often cursory. “It might just say ‘business with washing line for four minutes’ and then it’s either a matter of looking back to the original or making it up yourself. We sometimes use the original, or are inspired by it, or use something from the imagination, sometimes the cast do it.” A couple of his actors are playing a young romantic couple and they came up with some physical comedy themselves. “They were off working then come back and I shaped it a little bit.”
Then there is the ghost story element. “The sound is used a lot to make people jump,” says Parker. The sound in theatre really helps a ghost story whether atmospheric or background sound or sudden background noises. They are fortunate to have experienced sound designer Philip Matejtschuk working with them.
The show has already had four performances with a newly graduated cast of ten actors. Parker teaches and directs at Drama Studio London which is where he trained himself. Parker believed in the project so much that he decided to take it forward. It helped that everyone all really enjoyed it, Parker had not done farce before and he really wanted to see to see how other theatres work and learn from that. “I only ever direct at the Hope and it’s not how directors learn. After being seen in this show, two of the cast went on tour straight after the production. It feels lovely to do that for people.”
Parker just wants “no thought involved in watching it, disconnect your life and have a good old giggle at this spooky play.” Whilst Parker doesn’t believe in ghosts himself, he does enjoy a ghost story, particularly on stage. He’s directed J M Barrie’s Mary Rose, and seen Woman in Black twice.
THARK is a traditional full evening, three act farce lasting two hours with an interval. You certainly get plenty for your money.
Matthew was chatting with Heather Jeffery, founder and Editor of London Pub Theatres
Photography by Jacqueline Auty
THARK by Ben Travers
Directed by Matthew Parker
The Drayton Arms Theatre
153 Old Brompton Road
12 Dec 2017 - 6 Jan 2018, 7.30pm
3pm Matinees on Sat 16 & 23 Dec & 6 Jan
(No perfs 24 Dec - 1 Jan)
Tickets £16 Full & £12 Concs
“Ghosts - bunkum! Have you ever met anyone who’s seen a ghost?”
“No; but I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t met someone who has…”
London, 1927. The rebellious twenties are roaring right outside Sir Hector Benbow's Mayfair window. All he wants to do is to take Cherry a 'good looker’, out for a spot of dinner. His saucy liaison is scuppered when Lady Benbow and his ward Kitty arrive home unexpectedly. What’s more, there are reports that Thark – the family home – is haunted! Hector, his plucky nephew Ronny, and the rest of the family set out to investigate. Will Thark live up to its spine-chilling reputation?
Fast-paced, fruity and full of flappers, Ben Travers' Thark is a hilarious classic British farce combining sparkling witticisms and bold physical comedy with glamour, naughty romps and a hint of gothic spookery!
Hook - Daniel Casper
Warner/Jones - Sophia Lorenti
Cherry Buck - Isabella Hayward
Lionel Frush - Alexander Hopwood
Mrs Frush - Ellie Gill
Sir Hector Benbow - Mathijs Swarte
Ronald Gamble - Robin Blell
Lady Benbow - Charlotte Vassell
Kitty Stratton - Natalia Lewis
Whittle - Kieran Slade
Designer - Granville Saxton
Costume - Bryony J. Thompson
Sound - Philip Matejtschuk
Stage Manager - Emily Humphrys