When once asked if he thought Ben Travers’ farce, Thark, was relevant, Michael Billington replied that it remains as gloriously and sublimely irrelevant as it ever was. Having watched one of Jack Bradfield’s high octane, packed rehearsals, I have to agree with Michael. Thark’s script is funny, playful and (yes) irrelevant- but this production seems to ramp it up until it resembles P.G.Wodehouse on speed, lines flying, misconceptions throwing the cast into hilarious consequences, and pulling the audience into their wild world of ghosts and intrigue. Try to imagine the roaring ‘20s, haunted houses, jokes ranging from wordplay to horrendous innuendo and characters with names like Lionel and Sir Hector Benbow – and then mix them together and double the tempo.
Thark, a little known 1920s farce by Ben Travers, is wonderfully brought to life in this production- instead of being treated reverentially and as untouchable, director Jack Bradfield and producer Claudia Graham have embraced the play’s absurdity and friskiness, taking risks with the script and tightening up the wording – and it really works. Setting the play in the round, which will work especially well in the intimacy of the Pilch Studio, means the characters are exposed from every angle and forced to move around to engage each audience member and gives the play life and vitality. It also allows characters to appear on and off the stage from every angle, bouncing about like balloons in high winds or a particularly energetic snooker game. Props are hidden amongst the audience, teddy bears are given front row seats. “It’ll draw people in and exemplify the farce,” Jack tells me before he cracks a wide grin: “and it’ll also just be really fun.” This experimentation only enhances the farcical situations and hilarious witticisms, which Jack and Claudia aren’t afraid to change. Not even the ending is spared, being adapted to ‘suit the cast better’ – with the actors’ reactions and mannerisms becoming just important as the script.
One thing that really seems to bring the rehearsal to life is how much the cast are enjoying themselves – scenes break down in fits of giggles as lines are twisted and played with, and when the play draws to a close people just don’t want to stop. Everyone is drawn in to the play’s infectious, fun atmosphere: and Jack Bradfield is the most manic and energetic person in the room, running from person to person, pointing out a certain emphasis “that would just make it funnier”, and even at one point lending out his glasses (leaving me slightly worried as to whether he’d fall over a chair). With his help the cast are immersed in the script, and the play seems to come to life before my eyes: especially after he’s given the cast his ‘points of concentration’: “just imagine you’re holding in a fart. It’ll give you urgency.” Suddenly all the lines become heightened, more funny and engaging, and I can’t help but be pulled in as the play rushes forward headfirst. And I mean ‘pulled in’ in every sense- for the last scene I was required to stand in as ‘Ronnie’ and get accused and shouted at by just about every other character. If this production is anything, it is certainly full of surprises. This will be one farcical haunted house experience you dare not miss.
‘Thark’ is on at the Pilch Studio in 3rd week, 3rd – 6th February.