There's an exquisite inevitability about reviewing Sheridan's lampoon of self-appointed theatrical pundits who don't know their place – a sense that, whatever you write about it, you'll end up hoist by your own petard. However, in this case Theatre Affaire have done a pretty good job of hoisting themselves. Not only is this production staged in modern dress, it's been comprehensively updated: framed with a wholly modern-day prologue and epilogue, and with references inserted to the likes of lovely Stephen Fry and Mr Puff's "particular friends" Messrs Ayckbourn and Godber. But the dichotomy between contemporary mannerisms and Sheridan's well-turned lines lends the proceedings a bizarre edge, rather like watching an idiosyncratically dubbed early Buñuel film. Individual actors pull off their set-pieces, but they don't quite know how they should be playing dialogue sequences, and in the ensuing uncertainty end up fluffing all too frequently.
Josh Darcy as Puff is immaculately turned out as a pony-tailed, black-polo-necked luvvie, but once he opens his mouth he bears as much relation to a '90s would-be dramatic mover and shaker as, say, Enoch Powell does to a children's TV presenter. The second act, with its rehearsal of Puff's atrocious play The Spanish Armada, offers firmer ground for up-to-date piss-taking, with actors questioning their moves and motivation, and Puff railing (sometimes extempore) at sound and lighting cock-ups. But it nevertheless seems at once facile and contrived. The obviously low budget of the production increases the air of tawdriness, as if the whole enterprise is more a party turn for chums and colleagues than a show in its own right.
The notion of dragging Sheridan kicking and screaming into the present day is fine for a workshop session, but should have been ditched early on in a full production. The play resists director Moira Ross's attempts to make of such a version any more than an awkward exercise in which the audience laugh at the actors more often than with them.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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