“Remember when we used to trust politicians”
Although outrageous and audacious in its scope, the expenses scandal that rocked the Houses of Parliament in 2009 was also rich in comic detail as the minutiae of what our elected officials deemed acceptable to claim was revealed in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. And it is this that writers Dan Patterson and Colin Swash (with Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You among their credits) have picked up on in their new comedy The Duck House.
Set in May of that year with the Labour Party in disarray, backbencher Robert Houston decides to defect to the Tories in order to maintain the lifestyle he and his family have become used to. But with just one more interview with Tory grandee Sir Norman Cavendish to get through, the expenses scandal breaks and the Houstons set about trying to minimise the damage to their prospects. The depth of their financial fiddling means that this is no easy task though and results in farcical shenanigans that affect them all.
The 2009 setting allows Patterson and Swash to make jabs at politicians across the spectrum and not just about expenses, all manner of references gain traction due to our knowledge of what has happened in the interim –horse-riding with Rebekah Brooks, Nick Clegg’s integrity, Ed Miliband’s blandness, Andy Coulson’s trustworthiness, porn films in hotels, missing voicemails, hardly an opportunity missed to poke fun at the political classes and their predilection for getting into trouble.
The writing is so current that it will most likely date fairly quickly but it does the job perfectly here, the resonances and reminders still strong and wittily mounted on top of each other to create critical comic mass that makes for a highly entertaining first half. The play doesn’t always possess such sophistication – gags about fancy coffee names and that crazy thing called the internet feel lazy – and as it increasingly follows the path of a more conventional farce, it loses a little of what makes it unique.
But Simon Shepherd keeps things on track with his Sir Norman baring his hypocrisy most memorably indeed, a salutary lesson to politicians who would preach, and Ben Miller’s boundless energy as Robert makes him a hugely likeable presence throughout and an ideal farceur. Nancy Carroll oozes Blanchett-esque elegance as his grasping wife Felicity and it is great fun to see an actress of this quality unravelling with such comic abandon (her corpsing face is adorable too).
The fresh-faced James Musgrave is equally adorable as their much more liberal, and ever so slightly dippy, son Seb with a nice line in boxer shorts, Debbie Chazen’s Daily Mail-reading Russian housekeeper is good fun too. It just feels a shame that Diana Vicker’s Holly, a late arrival with connections to many of the men, is given so little to do that isn’t sex-related.
But in terms of a comedy, The Duck House really does deliver. Terry Johnson’s production is suffused with humour and whilst it may lack the formal construction of the best farces, the relentless energy here more than compensates. Regular readers will know I’m not the biggest fan of farce but even in its more obvious moments – the massage chair and the milk, the wardrobe and the superglue, the duck house and the…well that would be giving it away – I found myself merrily laughing away with the rest of the audience, the bird noise section is especially brilliant.
The show arrives in the West End at the end of November and the presence of Ben Miller and the currency of the subject ought to be sufficient to bring the crowds in but I think that more seasoned theatregoers, who might be a little sceptical, will also find much to enjoy here.