John Whiting's play (written 1951, revised 1962, set in 1805) takes a family of Dorset gentry eccentric to begin with: Sir Timothy Bellboys is obsessed with the threat of Napoleonic invasion, constantly devising plans to thwart the Corsican fiend, while his younger brother Lamprett neglects his family for his one true love, a fire-engine which he dutifully tends in the hope of a major conflagration. Add a languid aristo family friend, stir in an ex-mercenary-turned-social reformer, apply the steady heat of a local defence volunteers' military exercise and await (as they say) hilarious consequences!...
In fact, what could easily have been broad, crass comedy is maintained at a congenial pitch by Whiting's commendable sense of restraint; yes, Sir Tim falls down a well, flies off in a balloon and becomes a human cannonball, but the characters themselves are handled with an ear for well-made bourgeoiserie that's nimbly undermined by the skilful application of mild absurdism (two cannonballs roll onstage amid a déjeuner sur l'herbe, at which the shrewish Hester coolly instructs, "Lamprett – shut the gate"). Whiting mauls his own work with a coda in which the vein of social awareness gently pulsing through the play ruptures and spurts out in unsubtle gouts. That aside, though, a pleasure – one to take your parents to.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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