Christopher Morahan's revival of David Turner's 1962 comedy elicited in me two equally strong and almost diametrically opposite responses: on the one hand, warm admiration for a plot which uses narrative twists with the same invention and complexity that a prime seven-door farce uses bodies hurtling across the stage; on the other, righteous indignation that an entire social class is being, discreetly but at some length, laughed down at.
Fred and Hilda Midway have arrived: Fred's promotion away from selling insurance door-to-door has secured them their coveted semi-detached in a leafy suburb of Dowlihull, with its through lounge, kitchen-dinette and third bedroom – although Fred dreams of one day "becoming completely detached". He takes self-improvement correspondence courses and boasts to Hilda, "I never let the dust settle on my encyclopaedias, mother!" He uses his lovingly engineered miniature steam engines as an entrée into the world of the Dowlihull haute bourgeoisie. More to the point, he and Hilda brazenly pimp their two daughters to better-connected men, with a view to binding themselves solidly to the middle classes. (The words "middle class", or more specifically "lower middle class", never appear in the play except by implication as Fred and Hilda fret that they might be exhibiting "working class habits".) When younger daughter Avril stomps in declaring her intention to divorce her husband (the nephew of the local button magnate) for going with a prostitute, a chain of complications involving all three Midway children is unveiled and threatens to destroy their social aspirations until Fred, the West Midlands Machiavelli, deviously resolves everything, at least for himself and Hilda.
Morahan's production, played out on Peter Rice's two-dimensional colouring-book set (complete with flat, cut-out car in the driveway), realises that the only way to get away with such stuff these days is to play it with all the cartoon period camp of a Perry & Croft TV sitcom. The cast do so with skill, especially James Bolam as Fred and Catherine Holman as the spoilt-rotten Avril. But what is quaintly antique in televisual terms is still relatively recent on a theatrical scale; here is a play, written almost at the height of the kitchen-sink/Angry Young Men explosion, which affects to poke fun at individuals for nursing pretensions and schemes, but at root simply ridicules them for belonging to the class they do, or even for daring to believe that there can be such a category as "lower middle class". It is a deeply offensive attitude, and one which – at the risk of being equally "classist" myself – is likely to go quite unnoticed by a secure, socially unthreatened Chichester audience. Turner's play may have been presented, both originally and in this revival, as a piece of fun, but in its underlying nature it is not so much a joke as a long, smug sneer.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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