By coincidence I was at Wilton's Music Hall last night, a few hours before they announced a big Heritage Lottery grant to help save their ancient building. Great news for this wonderful atmospheric venue, which I am glad to say still looks as distressed as ever after a first round of building works. But it's better lit and the main hall presumably won't fall down now, after all that structural work behind the scenes.
Four Farces is a touring production by European Arts Company, which is on for just a week. It's a rare chance to get an insight into the world of Victorian theatre, rather than an out-and-out feast of laughter. The Victorians, with their strange sense of humour, sentimentality and taste for melodrama, have always seemed to me much further away from us than our more distant ancestors. The quartet of plays includes the most famous 19th century farce of all, John Maddison Morton's Box and Cox, better known as an operetta scored by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Three actors share the parts, which rely heavily on the comic convention of long asides to the audience. Having recently walked out of Strange Interlude, which relies heavily on this rather ponderous technique, it now strikes me that, far from doing something new and experimental, Eugene O'Neill's play is more of a 1920s revival of a very traditional 19th century habit.
My favourite of these four plays is A Most Unwarrantable Intrusion, also by Maddison Morton, which has a surreal touch. The programme suggests it is reminiscent of Pinter, Pirandello and Ionesco, which is a bit of an exaggeration. But it certainly relies on demolishing the fourth wall between actors and audience, and the story of a mysterious intruder has its own relentless logic. There's also a large element of contemporary theatrical parody in these plays, which is hard to exploit nowadays when we only have the vaguest notions about Victorian theatre. While the cast of three (Richard Latham, John O'Connor and Asta Parry) know their stuff, I wonder how a real comic genius of the calibre of the late Ronnie Barker might have done it. 150 years ago, with both the audience and probably the actors slightly the worse for drink and ad-libbing furiously, these farces were probably much funnier.