Winning Theatre – A Winning Hazard Review

JOHN Pratt Wooler spent most of his truncated adult life in an alcoholic stupor. But the bottle did not stop the playwright, who died virtually penniless at age 44, from penning some mighty fine plays.

As part of its 150th anniversary celebrations – and to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Wooler’s death (what a coincidence) – Finborough Theatre has revived three of his ‘comediettas’. Short, sharp plays. And thrillingly – and joyously – performed. Fun, fun, fun.

The plays, spanning two fun (fun, fun) packed hours, focus on the hypocrisy, vanity and foibles of the Victorian ruling class. Potentially dated story lines, maybe, but Wooler was a perceptive and progressive playwright as these three comediettas confirm. Same sex attraction, the corrupting influence of money, class divide and anti-marriage views are all aired. As relevant today as they were in the 1840s and 1850s. Probably more so.

The three plays – A Winning Hazard, Allow Me To Apologise and Orange Blossoms – are laced with dollops of farce and wit. Duels, cross dressing, deception, bluff and counter bluff all get an airing. It will all leave you somewhat dizzy as twists and turns come around quicker than a descent down Alpes D’Huez on a racing bike. But smiling at the same time.

What play tickles your particular fancy is personal. If I had to choose – and it is a difficult choice – I would plump for the joy of A Winning Hazard, a play that has Dudley Croker (a towering Max Marcq) and Jack Crawley (Edward Mitchell) duelling for the affections of Aurora Blythe (an impish Evelyn Lockley) and Coralie Blythe (Josephine Starte). At stake is a promised inheritance from the prim and proper Colonel Croker (a superb Robert Benfield) who strides around like the toff he is in his boots, cap and triumphantly holding aloft wooden sculling oars. It ends magically, joyously and triumphantly.

Yet it really is personal (like choosing between flavours of Walkers Crisps). The person behind me in the interval drinks queue preferred Allow Me To Apologise, a play that sees extravagant cad Goliath Goth (Edward Mitchell) vie for the love of both Hariette Seymour (Starte) and bespectacled Mary Myrtle (Lockley), women under the protection of pompous bore Sir Peter Pedigree (a winning Benfield, again). Yet cross dressing Fanny Fairlove (Jasmine Blackborow) throws a spanner or three into the works, having previously convinced Hariette that as Jenkins ‘he’ was the one for her.

The six-strong cast gel together like super glue throughout and have real on-stage chemistry. They seem to be having riotous fun, enjoying the plays as much as the audience. There is not a fault line apart from the occasional stumbled word (more male than female). Yet that is nit-picking. Eye catching performances are the order of the night.

In Allow Me To Apologise, Blackborow turns Fanny Fairlove into a striking Jenkins. No wonder Hariette Seymour fell head over heels in love with ‘him’.

In Orange Blossoms, Marcq is marvellous as bachelor Septimus Symmetry, a man who has a week to decide whether to get married or to be disinherited. The trouble is that Septimus has no time for women, marriage or men, preferring instead to tend to his garden. The arrival of Louisa Dudley (Blackborow) – who loathes men with the same passion as Septimus despises women – upsets the applecart. Marcq, who seems to have taken lessons from the acting book of Hugh Grant, turns Septimus into a frenetic energy ball. Opening doors, shutting them, spinning round to await the arrival of another male or female foe.

Benfield is a delight throughout. His depiction of womaniser Falcone Hope in Orange Blossoms is the third treat that he delivers. Watch out for the twitching of his nose in response to the possibility of meeting another member of the fairer sex.

Mitchell’s portrayal of cad Goliath Goth is wonderfully over the top while Lockley says as much with her gestures and eyes as she does with her words. She floats around the stage. A joy to watch as indeed is Starte, her female partner throughout and who excels as Isabella Clarence in Orange Blossoms.

Director Phillip Rouse has produced a wonderful night of entertainment. It fizzes with energy – Lucozade theatre without the need for an overload intake of calories. As for the costumes, they are magnificent, especially the bonnets and crinoline dresses worn by Lockley and Starte. Hats off to designer Martelle Hunt.

This revival of Wooler’s work is an unmitigated triumph. If you need cheering up, or fancy a fun night out – without the alcohol Wooler needed – this is the perfect answer.

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