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Scandaltown (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 4th May 2022)

The very nature of comedy, satire in particular, is that it is “of its time” and passes through phases of hilarity to amusement to irrelevance to very occasionally classic status. Admired, sometimes even raising a chuckle (pretentiously at times) or simply managing by some miracle to be timeless.

“Restoration Comedy” – the unleashing of fun after Cromwell in 1660 is here given parallel with the past two years by Mike Bartlett. His concept is to take all the elements of the original, the farce, social snobbery, commentary on the elite and mix it with modern mores and references to create “Post Virus Restoration Comedy” if you will.

Young Phoebe Virtue (Cecilia Appiah) leaves her family home with Aunty Judy (Emma Cunniffe) for London, to see if brother Jack Virtue (Matthew Broome) is as good as his letters home suggest.

She finds him in a squalid flat-share with media manipulator Hannah Tweetwell (Aysha Kala) and flatmates Jenny Hood (Ami Okumura Jones), Matt Eton (Richard Goulding) and Freddie Peripheral (Luke Hornsby).

Tweetwell has a vendetta against ex Reality TV star Lady Susan Climber (Rachael Stirling), there’s a party to bring together the underclass flatmates, haughty Rosalind Double-Budget (Annette McLaughlin), aspiring TV maker son Tom Double-Budget (Thomas Josling) with wealthy Sir Dennis Hedge (Kwame Owusu, reading the part for the absent Chukwuma Omambala) and Peter Media OBE (Henry Everett).

Bartlett and the Lyric Hammersmith compromise nothing on the size of the cast nor the extent of the revels in which they indulge. Mistaken identities, secret families and self-discovery are all, and it is the last which makes the comedy considerably more modern than even post-Cromwellians may have allowed.

It’s fairly amusing stuff for the most part. Half the interest is in spotting the updated tropes of yore. Several sharp lines and dagger references further sustain interest and bridge the gap between times.

Appiah grows into her role as the young innocent learning far more quickly than she might expect. Thomas Josling aids her in that, his own naiveties firmly demolished by a nicely vampish Rachael Stirling.

The trouble is that Rachel O’Riordan’s direction just doesn’t seem as snappy as the lines suggest they should be delivered. The end of act one, which in other hands would have been hilarious as three quick minimalist snapshots and a curtain was instead given lengthy and dull exposition. Worse, we hit snail’s pace in the final scenes where a “we can see what you can’t” sequence overstays its welcome and audience tolerance by about a week.

Still, it is a bold idea from the Lyric Hammersmith, and the monkey left with the strong feeling that given fuller development by one of the national theatre companies it could have been an instant classic. Where Hammersmith scores, however, is in its bravery staging it at all. Quite possibly those being satirised might just be the same people in positions at national companies who may not take too kindly to the humour. A neat commentary on this commentary if so.

A small matinee audience appreciating a quite daring experiment of a new play presented by an engaging cast and with a very authentic set from Good Teeth. The restoration of theatre and comedy has certainly been marked here.

3 stars.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner. Used by kind permission.

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