A few days ago I saw a beautifully restored 1920s Austin 7, its paintwork glossy and shining, turning heads as it roared along the road. Rookery Nook (1926) by Ben Travers has much the same kind of period appeal. This is one of the Aldwych farces staged in the 1920s by actor-manager Tom Walls, with Ralph Lynn, Robertson Hare and a semi-permanent company of other actors and actresses, some of whom were still around to act with Brian Rix in the 1950s. Rix adored Travers and all his works, but confessed that when he tried to present Rookery Nook on television at the end of the 1950s 'it was already somewhat long in the tooth' and when it was revived in the West End in 1986 'even the combined talents of Tom Courtenay, Ian Ogilvy, Nicola McAuliffe, Jeffrey Sumner and Lionel Jeffries couldn't breathe life into what was now a corpse.' I imagine that an Austin 7 would have looked similarly dated on the new M1 motorway when Ernest Marples opened it. A quarter of a century on, the play now has a delicious period appeal which is brilliantly exploited in this production by Terry Johnson at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Like the Austin 7, it's an antique, but that's why it's valuable. The same period approach was taken by Matthew Warchus in his highly successful West End revival of Marc Camoletti's Boeing-Boeing a couple of years ago. Like the Austin 7, Rookery Nook may not have a modern engine under the bonnet and its fittings are a bit dated, but this production has been lovingly polished and the sparking plugs and upholstery have been cleaned. In short, the play has been treated with respect. The timing is sharp, the 1920s details are perfect, the sight gags are excellent and the laughing barely stops. Mark Hadfield takes the original Robertson Hare part of Harold Twine the timid hen-pecked husband, and he's just brilliant. Scaring Harold to death is the life's work of his formidable wife Gertrude, who drives the plot as the person WHO MUST NOT FIND OUT WHAT IS GOING ON. Cousins Gerald and Clive Popkiss are played by Neil Stuke and Edward Baker-Duly, recreating the original double act of Ralph Lynn and Tom Walls. Kellie Shirley is pitch-perfect as Rhoda Marley, the girl runaway whose fetching appearance in her pyjamas in Gerald's rented country house provides the starting point for the story. Rhoda stays overnight in the spare bedroom wearing the bottom half of Gerald's pyjamas, but of course newly married Gerald doesn't lay a finger on her. He's pure as the driven snow, but he still has to persuade his wife of the fact. That's the difference between British and French farce. In Feydeau's bedroom farces, there is some serious shagging going on. Men and women are worried that people will find out they are busy seducing each other for real, while on this side of the Channel it's all about keeping up appearances when nothing much happens at all. Blame the malign influence of the Lord Chamberlain. In Arthur Wing Pinero's plays like The Magistrate, which Travers took as a model, food often serves as a metaphor for sex, something a Victorian audience would have understood perfectly. The plays of Ben Travers fell out of fashion in the post-war period, when innocence was little appreciated. When the Lord Chamberlain breathed his last, people went for naughty Feydeau instead. But like the novels of PG Wodehouse, Travers' plays can now be appreciated for their true virtues, which do not include political and cultural correctness. Servants are funny and so are foreigners. Wives are domineering battleaxes and girls are brainless, especially attractive ones wearing pyjamas. It's the asexual world of Jeeves and Wooster. You either run away screaming and buy tickets for the latest Katie Mitchell production instead, or you find it irresistible. I am in the latter camp.
The programme notes quote the TLS as praising Travers for his 'single-track dirty mind, the double entendre, the treble think, the quadruple bluff; funny names, funny local yokels, domineering women, pretty girls and the ever-swinging bedroom door.' Only part of this is true. I don't think Travers went in for the double-entendre at all, any more than PG Wodehouse did. There's a useful comparison to be made with the girl in pyjamas who forgets her latchkey and spends the night in the hero's spare bedroom in Coward's Present Laughter. In this case, the 'forgotten latchkey' and the 'spare bedroom' are part of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge routine between Coward and his audience, even the stupidest of whom would understand what is going on behind the Lord Chamberlain's back. But in Rookery Nook the pyjama girl's innocence is real. No mind was less dirty than that of Ben Travers.
The Aldwych company acted together in a long series of plays, as did Brian Rix's Whitehall troupe. But those repertory days have long gone, and it's a tribute to the actors on stage at the Menier that one would think they had been performing together for years. Terry Johnson sensibly doesn't try to reinvent the play but sticks faithfully to the original stage directions. After all, Rookery Rook ran at the Aldwych for over 400 performances. This production (with which the West End producer Sonia Friedman is associated) is probably on track to follow La Cage Aux Folles and A Little Night Music and transfer to a larger theatre across the river. Neil Stuke's attempt to disguise a golf club down his trousers is a highlight of the evening.
A critical footnote: quite by chance, I found I had bought tickets for Rookery Nook's press night. Normally I try to avoid opening nights because the preponderance of actors and friends of the cast in the audience, ready to laugh and applaud at any moment, can be seriously misleading. That wasn't the case on this occasion. The critics were laughing away like everyone else, though I noticed that Nicholas de Jongh was no longer of the party. It appears that despite my insults directed at his play Plague Over England, he has decided to give up reviewing for the Evening Standard and concentrate on his career as a dramatist. All of which goes to prove the amazing power of the blogosphere.