The Vicar of Dibley – Whitley Bay Playhouse, 10th June 2015
When the children of the Tyne Theatre Stage School choir belted out the familiar theme song at the very beginning, I thought I knew what I was in for. A fun, over-the-top recreation of a classic sitcom – something the Playhouse has offered very successfully on numerous occasions (Father Ted, Are You Being Served?, Fawlty Towers, Hi-De-Hi!, ‘Allo ‘Allo, etc.) – with some wobbly sets and wobblier performances but still a highly entertaining evening to be had by the end of it. Sadly this production wasn’t one of their best.
Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer’s parochial sitcom has always been comfy background viewing but it’s easy to forget it’s the cast that makes it special. Here, Leah Ashton does a remarkable impression of Geraldine Granger but Dawn French is always going to be a hard act to follow and Ashton needs to work on her comedic timing. The main problem was she didn’t capture the likability of French’s character, more often than not sounding like an ageing secondary school teacher. It’s a great shame, especially considering the marvellous Basil Fawlty offered by Jason Fenn a few years prior. Chris Johnson as David Horton gave a lacklustre performance as if he’d left his batteries at home, while Graham Oakes would make a great Hugo if he could control the added-on stuttering (which took away rather from the other famous stuttering character in the show). Nick Wright and Bob Douglas, as Jim ‘No no no no yes!’ Trott and Frank Pickle respectively, were very entertaining and comfortable in their roles. Maurice Leaver’s Owen Trott was a pitch-perfect Roger Lloyd Pack and Abi Dysart provided an excellent Alice who was a joy to watch.
The three episodes chosen were ‘The Arrival’, ‘Songs of Praise’ and ‘The Christmas Lunch Incident’. All fair choices and self-explanatory titles really. They were staged as best they could be with Geraldine’s famous misunderstood jokes marking the end of each edition. Moments of note included pre-recorded linking videos which inexplicably still featured line-fluffings (‘…which is a relief on one hand, and a bloody relief on the other…’), a terrifying rumble as if the building was going to fall down in Act Two and a fifteen minute loop of Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ during the multiple dinner scenes (God help us!). Music choices were very silly throughout, always chosen to tie in with a single line of dialogue from the previous scene; the extended version of the Mastermind theme was certainly an oddity. Another odd aspect was the constant referencing of nineties’ culture, obviously appropriate to the original script. As soon as I’d got used to that, they started throwing in unnecessary references to Simon Cowell and David Cameron! Ah well, it’s a bit of fun, I suppose.
Let’s be honest, I love these evenings at the Playhouse and the more mistakes made during the production the more fun it is. Honestly. The stage-hands even broke a cabinet as they chucked it on last night, and it was great. My only issue was that the evening quickly became dull, and I can only lay that criticism down at the director’s feet. Chris Johnson, who was also playing David as mentioned above. It is so extraordinarily tricky to direct a play while you’re literally inside it and this is what has led to the issues regarding pace and blocking. All the blackouts and scene changes don’t help but they were actually covered pretty well in the assembling of the show, even if the logic of the plotlines seemed to be affected occasionally (‘Surely they’ve just heard her accepting another dinner invitation!’ ‘What sort of time is it to be calling round the vicarage?’) …But my moaning aside the assembled audience enjoyed it all very much, and I hope greater numbers continue to do so.