BLACK COMEDY by Peter Shaffer
Abingdon Drama Club (ADC)
Unicorn Theatre, 18 Thames Street, Abingdon, OX14 3HZ
13-16 March 2019
Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy opens with the stage in darkness. This is important – more of that in a moment.
It is London in the mid-Sixties. Aspiring sculptor Brinsley Miller (Rich Damerell) and his debutante fiancée Carol Melkett (Rachel Tranter) are preparing for a visit from Carol's stuffed-shirt father Colonel Melkett (Adam Blake) and millionaire art collector Mr Bamberger (Michael Ward). Brinsley hopes to impress his future father-in-law into agreeing to his and Carol's engagement. He also hopes to persuade Bamberger to buy his latest work of art for a considerable sum of money. But then fate steps in and the main fuse blows, plunging the flat into darkness. For the audience, however, the very opposite happens. The previously dark stage becomes fully illuminated, but with the characters stumbling about in the 'dark'. When a torch or match or cigarette lighter are lit, the lighting dims a little. A simple but ingenious device.
Brinsley so wants to impress Colonel Melkett that he has borrowed some expensive furniture and antiques from his friendly neighbour Harold Gorringe (David Fardon). The ultra-possessive Harold is away and is unaware of what Brinsley has done. Unfortunately, he returns early and enters Brinsley's darkened flat, joining in the social gathering. He chats away to Miss Furnival (Lynne McClurg-Smith), another neighbour, who has sought refuge in Brinsley's flat during the blackout. Brinsley, fearful of Harold's wrath if the unauthorised 'loan' of his possessions is found out, proceeds to remove all the borrowed items right under his nose, in the darkness. So, while drinks are served by Carol, and conversation continues through the blackout, we see the hilarious sight of Brinsley carrying chairs, antiques and a chaise longue out of his flat, weaving round the totally unaware guests, and then replacing them with his own battered furniture.
Theatrical manoeuvres in the dark: Brinsley (Rich Damerell, front centre) conceals a borrowed antique from Harold (David Fardon, back left), while Miss Furnival (Lynne McClurg-Smith, front left) and Colonel Melkett (Adam Blake, back right) down the wrong drinks, watched by Carol (Rachel Tranter, back centre). Picture from rehearsals.
Matters become more complicated as Brinsley's ex-girlfriend Clea (Rebecca Peberdy) first phones Brinsley, then turns up at the flat uninvited, while the blackout continues. Clea is fully intent on getting back together with Brinsley and attempts to seduce him in the dark with the oblivious Carol standing next to them. Brinsley is terrified that Carol will find out and call off their engagement. But all might just work out...if he can keep the flat in total darkness. Colonel Melkett keeps flicking on his cigarette lighter, though, and then the man from the electricity board, a German named Schuppanzigh (John Hawkins), arrives and turns on his torch. Farcical hilarity ensues.
Of course, it was never going to last, and Brinsley is exposed. A furious Harold ends their friendship when he discovers his possessions have been borrowed. Colonel Melkett and Carol are livid at Brinsley's two-timing her with Clea. When Mr Bamberger does turn up, he ends up falling down the the stairs into the cellar. The play ends with the colonel and Harold seizing parts of Brinsley's latest sculpture and proceeding to give him a damned good thrashing with them!
So let's look at the production. Director Susi Dalton was blessed with a strong cast. Full disclosure – I've performed with Rich Damerell previously, but his portrayal of Brinsley Miller is the best thing I've seen him do. He managed to inject the role with the right levels of manic energy and strategic grovelling.
Rachel Tranter was superb as Carol Melkett. She gave us a dippy deb par excellence whose loyalty to Brinsley was rock firm in spite of all the warning signs and the madness. Until the exposé of his relationship with Clea, that is.
Lynne McClurg-Smith's lovely vignette of Miss Furnival must have been fun to play. In one of the many very funny scenes of the piece, the drinks of Harold, the colonel and Miss Furnival were swapped in the darkness, and the teetotal spinster ended up downing several Scotches. Lynne's comic tirade against bikers in leather jackets was hilarious.
The role of Colonel Melkett could have descended into a mere stereotype – a pastiche of a retired army officer. Fortunately, Adam Blake restrained himself and we had a glimpse of his relationship with his daughter and of the colonel as a human being. That was in addition, of course, to his rolling round on the floor after repeated mishaps with a rocking chair that wasn't there before!
David Fardon was a suitably camp Harold Gorringe, whose interest in Brinsley is more than platonic. This was not the full high camp of Sandy and Julian, but it nodded in that direction several times. Full disclosure again – David and I have shared the stage on several occasions, and I've noticed that his recent performances have shown a greater depth and range. I think that finally he is getting some decent direction, so kudos to Susi Dalton too.
Rebecca Peberdy impressed me as Clea. A wonderful counterpoint to Carol, Rebecca's Clea was fun, flirty, bohemian, sexy and not a little crazy: a ball of energy that Brinsley cannot resist.
There were nice cameo performances from John Hawkins as the electricity man Schuppanzigh and Michael Ward as Bamberger. Schuppanzigh, as a fellow German, is initially mistaken by Brinsley et al for Bamberger the millionaire. Schuppanzigh is clearly over-qualified for his job and shares his critical assessment of Brinsley's latest sculpture to everyone's delight. Until, that is, they discover his true identity and rage against him for their own mistake. It's a great role and John appeared to relish every moment of it.
It would be wrong not to mention the set design and construction. Those familiar with the restrictive space of the Unicorn Theatre will know that there is an unused balcony over the stage, normally accessible only by a ladder. What a waste! Thankfully, ADC have bitten the bullet and built a full staircase, stage left, which enabled them to use the balcony as Brinsley's bedroom. Susi Dalton was therefore able to run scenes with simultaneous action on stage and above it. I hope, and assume, that it will be used in future productions.
Black Comedy is a well written piece of theatre, with a strong structure and original concept, but that does not guarantee that it will automatically result in a good production. For that, we need a cast, crew and director who are able to grapple with the complexities of this challenging play. I'm pleased to say that ADC fitted that job description. Well done to all.
Photo credits: ADC
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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