Like 'To be or not to be? That is the question' or 'Don't tell him, Pike!' there are some dramatic lines which are just impossible to forget. Mrs Doyle's repeated offers of tea to Father Ted, packed with UST (Unresolved Sexual Tension), tell us more about the feminine condition than the works of Germaine Greer and all her successors combined.
I dearly wanted to jump up and shout 'Tea, Father?' last night when I sat down in the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker theatre and discovered to my joy that the wonderful Pauline McLynn (Mrs Doyle) would be playing the Citizen's Wife. But being a well-behaved theatregoer, I resisted the temptation.
McLynn, Im delighted to say, is an absolute hoot and so is the production, directed by Adele Thomas. This is only the second play to be staged in the Globe's brand new indoor theatre, and the first comedy. Francis Beaumont's play dates from 1607-8, and was supposed to have been written in eight days. Jacobean and Elizabethan comedy isn't easy to perform; I've seen productions where the audience has sat stony-faced and the humour just hasn't come across.
Last night was press night, but the waves of laughter were genuine. This is a gloriously funny production, which highlights the way in which English comedy hasn't changed much in the last five hundred years. The Knight of the Burning Pestle doesn't have any of the depth of feeling of Shakespeare's great comedies, but it's an exhilarating piss-take with lots of comic potential.
I had barely heard of it, though I had certainly heard of Beaumont and and his writing partner Fletcher (the Marks and Gran of their day). I knew that the young Noel Coward performed in it in 1919 (not 1920 as the programme says) at Birmingham Rep. 'I was not very good...owing to a total lack of understanding of the play. It was my first and only experience of Elizabethan comedy and, being unable to detect any great humour on it, I played that poor apprentice with a stubborn Mayfair distinction which threw the whole thing out of key.'
The play's real interest is in the way it breaks down the 'fourth wall' between audience and stage. It is really three plays in one, moving fluidly between its various levels. There are lots of plays about people putting on plays, but this one does it better than most. Into a conventional play entitled 'The London Merchant' jump two members of the audience, the Citizen and his even more loquacious Wife. The Grocer protests loudly about the way he and his fellow merchants are made fun of in the theatre. They propel their apprentice, young Rafe, onto the stage and insist he is allowed to join in, playing a knight errant in a chivalric romance entitled The Knight of the Burning Pestle.
I've said already that Pauline McLynn gives a great performance. So does her husband (Phil Daniels), although from my seat in the upper gallery I ended up listening rather than seeing most of their interventions, as they were seated in the pit directly below me. Their frequent interruptions and insistence that dear Rafe should appear more frequently have a surreal flavour. It's not so much a case of Brechtian alienation as a version of lively audience participation. This interplay between stage and audience is what makes the outdoor Globe such an exciting theatrical space, and it's why Dominic Dromgoole, the theatre's artistic director, picked Beaumont's play. Allowing characters to move fluidly between the stage and the audience is a powerful device, which Tom Stoppard used to great effect in The Real Inspector Hound.
However this isn't enough on its own to carry the play. The twin stories being acted out on stage have to be funny as well, and they are. There's a conventional comic plot about young thwarted lovers (Sarah MacRae and Alex Waldmann) and parents, intertwined with slapstick parody in the scenes where the hapless Rafe prances about in his armour. The deftness of Thomas's direction is in the way she keeps the play entirely in period (no modern panto jokes or mobile phones) while still channelling a lot of contemporary echoes. There are elements of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and of Morecambe and Wise. There are also parodies of the cliches of modern musicals such as Les Miserables and the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but they never dominate or get out of hand. And there are some sublime moments of physical comedy, notably when the knight gets to woo the King of Moldavia's daughter.
As Rafe the apprentice, Matthew Needham has to play absolutely straight, and he conveys the character's essential dullness rather well. But I can't help thinking that Rafe is potentially much funnier than he turns out to be in this production. I wonder what James Corden might have made of the part. Or Mark Rylance, whom I remember being sublimely funny as a half-wit in Boeing-Boeing a decade or so ago, using comic timing to represent a character whose brain cells work at half the speed of the other people on stage.
I'm not sure there are many tickets left for this show, but I really recommend it. It's the funniest thing I've seen in London since One Man, Two Guvnors. For connoisseurs of pestle-flaunting, it's a must-see.