REVIEW: A Commercial Farce | Glen Street Theatre, Sydney
It’s a hell of a set, Anne Cordingley. A deftly art-directed split-level menagerie of suburban and backstage detritus, coerced into an imaginary rehearsal stage for the play within this play. The play within this play is, as its title is roughly indicative of, a commercial farce. It even harks back to what surely must be the original slapstick gag: slipping on a banana-skin.
Peter Houghton is a hell of an actor. Turns out he’s a pretty dab hand when he’s got a pen in it too. Here, he’s taken on both those tasks, but has had the good sense to temper any megalomaniacal tendencies by allowing Aidan Fennessey to direct.
Houghton is joined on stage, at least for this run and lengthy regional tour of the play (plaudits for taking it on the road beyond the reach of the glitterati and literati), by Tim Potter, who’s also a hell of an actor.
Houghton is the first to appear through the doors of the rehearsal set, which moos every time its threshold is breached; which proves to be just one of the sustained gags. These recurring cliches are funny and annoying, at once. In fact, that sentiment, for me, characterises the whole play: I veered uncomfortably between those two states. There’s no doubting the performances, but I’m not entirely sure what I walked away with. It seems to be a loving homage to the commercial farce, even while working hard at ruthless parody. It’s dichotomous; a dialectic on the subject.
Whatever he’s on about, it’s done with superb craft. It has all the restless, raw energy and suspense generated by the likes of, say, Harold Lloyd, with his high-rise, cunning stunts. Houghton’s character, Bill, is hanging from a thread; always about to skid on bright yellow peel. His marriage hangs in the balance, along with his finances and reputation, having poured every last cent into the production he’s directing, a farce by the failsafe Dylan Crackbourn, opening the following night.
Inflaming the sense of panic is no-talent soap star, Jules (Potter), whose cluelessness about stagecraft, and almost everything else, is pushing Bill beyond the limit: it’s his 20th wedding anniversary and his wife, Bianca, isn’t happy. And, as we all know, the spouse bone’s connected to the stomach ulcer (or used to be, before one or the other was deemed a virus). Bill does what any self-respecting male would do in the situation, in turning to the bottle.
And the characters emerge to a cold, hard, depressing reality even more absurd. Role reversal occurs too: Potter’s buffoonish Jules becomes a purveyor of down-to-earth instinctual wisdom, which he trades for the coaching in theatre arts Bill has bled, sweated and cried to instil. Each saves the other. It’s an odd kind of bartered salvation, but of an ilk not unknown in life beyond the stage.
Scratching a little deeper, perhaps Houghton is also using vaudevillian ritual to mimic the groundhog lives we lead; that certain, pervasive, inevitable, automotonic numbness we practically all suffer, as we drag our lifeless feet through humdrum day-jobs and love-gone-wrong relationships.
Hellishly good? Getting there.
Curtain Call rating: A-
The details: A Commercial Farce plays the Glen Street Theatre until March 12 — tickets on the company website. The NSW tour takes in Parramatta (Riverside Theatres, March 16), Woolongong (Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, March 22), Bathurst (Memorial Entertainment Centre, March 29) and Port Macquarie (Glasshouse Arts Conference and Entertainment Centre, April 1). It moves to Brisbane (QUT Gardens Theatre) on April 8 and Canberra (Theatre Centre) on April 12. And then three dates in Victoria, at Shepparton (WestSide PAC, April 19), Geelong (Performing Arts Centre, April 28) and Wodonga (Hume Building Society Butter Factory Theatre, May 3).