Words by Melissa Blease Playing at the Theatre Royal Bath until 30 April
Farce: a comedy that seeks to entertain an audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, ridiculous, absurd and improbable, characterised by heavy use of physical humour and unlikely, broadly stylised performances* …and, when it comes to our taste in light entertainment, we Brits, it seems, can’t get enough of it.
We love characters falling over. We love cheeky double-entendres. We love asides and knowing looks that break the fourth wall. We love it when the actors apparently corpse. Throw a bit of slapstick into the mix and we go totally weak at the knees, recovering only for a standing ovation before the curtain falls (probably on somebody’s head). If you’re ready to chortle along to a new production of a tried-and-tested recipe for theatre success on a farcical theme, Cluedo largely has all the ingredients for a megahit.
This new British play with a script adapted from an American play that was itself based on an American film of a British board game (keep up at the back!) is directed by Mark Bell, whose previous directorial credits include Mischief Theatre’s blockbuster The Play That Goes Wrong and the enduringly popular A Comedy About a Bank Robbery (which also, of course, goes wrong). While Michelle (EastEnders; Midsummer Murders; Hotel Babylon) Collins’ career prior to her role as seductive siren Miss Scarlet has thus far focused on going very right indeed, many of Bell’s ensemble Cluedo cast are no strangers to the studiously satyrical style; at least five of them have worked with him before in either/both TPTGW and ACAABR, and their experience in either/both are pushed to the fore here.
Even if you’ve never actually played the board game, everybody knows how Cluedo rolls: six blackmail victims are invited to an isolated mansion (Boddy Manor) by a mysterious man who knows a dark secret from each of their pasts… and each are given a potentially deadly weapon. As the guests start being killed off one-by-one, we’ve got to work out whodunnit, how and why. Was it the femme fatale/stuffy professor/eccentric ‘reverend’ with a candlestick/revolver/piece of lead piping in the library/study/billiard room? Or was it their blackmailer himself, with… oh, y’know what? The logical semantics aren’t really the point – this is farce, remember? And so, the scene is set (a highly imaginative creation designed by David Farley featuring several rooms opening off Boddy Manor’s main hall), the key characters are dressed in suitably smart, bygone age attire and there’s a ditzy maid swigging the guest’s arrival fizz before any of the characters have had a chance to deliberately misfire their witty one-liner, mistakenly walk into a door, have a chandelier dropped on them or flaunt their exaggerated death throe scene.
The all-important action, however, doesn’t really pick up pace until the second half of this surprisingly short drama (only 100 minutes in total, including the interval). In the first half, certain ‘fast-paced’ scenes seemed a little overlong, the heavy-handed over-repetition of lines that were, on their initial delivery, witty quips had become stale, and scene changes felt a bit clumsy. But the touch paper eventually lit in the build-up to the denouement, largely courtesy of ‘butler’ Wadsworth’s beautifully-timed recap of the entire plot so far (an outstanding, magnificent performance from Jean-Luke Worrell with due homage paid to Tim Curry, who played the same role in Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 screen version) and lashings of impeccable choreography… including, of course, plenty of slapstick tomfoolery. So whodidit? I wouldn’t reveal a spoiler even if I had one to hand.
Slickly silly, deliciously daft and astutely absurd, Cluedo is the stage version of tea, crumpets and a family board game on a rainy Sunday afternoon: comfortingly familiar, generally entertaining… and very, very British.
*Thank you for that, Wikipedia; I couldn’t have put it better myself… so I didn’t.