By Ryan Flaherty
These days, it’s hard to turn on the television, surf the web, or open a newspaper without hearing about a new scandal. Whether it’s a singer with a drug problem, a politician cheating on his or her spouse, or a comedian spouting racial slurs, it’s almost as though we’ve become accustomed to people behaving badly.
Which is why there’s a certain quaintness — nostalgia, even — about the alleged impropriety at the heart of the plot of Rookery Nook, running now through Nov. 19 at the Phoenix Theatre on the University of Victoria campus.
The story of the Ben Travers’ farce, set in a seaside English village in the 1920s, centres around a young lady named Rhoda who is driven from home by her tyrannical stepfather, only to end up causing even more trouble when she seeks refuge at a nearby house — the titular Nook. Gerald, the recently-married brother-in-law of the town gossip, has just arrived at the house to begin a holiday. Gerald’s new bride and mother-in-law are due to join him the following day, and Rhoda’s arrival sets off a hilarious chain of misadventures, which result in rapidly spreading rumours of some less-than-gentlemanly conduct on Gerald’s behalf.
Framed in the context of our modern-day tabloid obsession, the notion that a married man offering shelter to a young woman could lead to such an uproar is hard to fathom. After all, we hardly bat an eye nowadays when the latest celebrity sex tape hits the Internet, so it seems hard to believe that anyone would get so worked up over two people sharing accommodations platonically.
But at the same time, if the events of Rookery Nook were to take place today, it’s interesting to ponder how much quicker the rumours would fly thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter. At least in Rookery Nook, the gossipy Gertrude Twine has to go from place to place herself to dish the dirt, which of course gives the rest of the play’s characters plenty of time to get into all sorts of trouble while trying to get themselves out of it.
Ben Travers is known in theatrical circles as one of the masters of farce, a genre which relies on a stable of classic character archetypes — the ladies’ man, the coquettish lass, the henpecked husband, the busybody housekeeper, and so on — and a series of mistaken identities and misunderstandings to generate laughs at a breakneck pace. And after a bit of a slow start, Rookery Nook delivers those laughs in spades. It quickly becomes clear that the cast had a lot of fun rehearsing this play, and that translates into solid performances from virtually the entire ensemble. Among the standouts are Taryn Lees as Rhoda, Derek Wallis as Gerald and Jonathan Mason as Gerald’s philandering cousin Clive.
The play isn’t without its shortcomings however. Some of the sight gags — for example, one person literally has steam shoot out of his ears at one point — fall a bit flat, and there are a couple of characters who only exist as plot devices. There’s also a recurring bit involving a cat that would be funnier if we never saw it until the play’s final moments. Since the animal has been seen already on a couple of occasions, albeit briefly, the final joke loses some of its impact.
But by and large these are minor quibbles. Rookery Nook is one of nine farces that Travers was commissioned to write over a nine-year span, so it’s inevitable that he would miss the target on occasion. On the whole, this play is a heck of a lot of fun. There’s nothing scandalous about that. M
UVic’s Phoenix Theatre
Nov. 10-12, 15-19 at 8pm, Nov. 19 at 2pm