The special joy of a great farce is in watching the precision workings of detailed parts, all functioning in a perfectly tuned, well-oiled machine. In "Balmoral", the familiar types and devices of farce are melded to a social and political satire. It begins with the intriguing question, "What if the Communist revolution had happened in England rather than Russia? How would a "class-less" utopia look in that most stratified of societies?"
There are some very nice performances in this production, but the combination of a dubious script and indecisive direction rob the evening of the kind of giddy delight it could have had.
Michael Frayn, best known for his runaway hit comedy, "Noises Off", is a master of farce, but in this 1978 satire the action is driven by concepts that seem both distant and dated. The four writers camping out in the drafty former royal estate are actual British writers, but they are too obscure for us to appreciate his playing on their public personalities, or their literary styles. The comedy based on totalitarian hypocrisy, at this end of the Cold War, seems as ancient as the threat of Sputnik. That leaves only the comedy of contrivance and personality type.
Given that the raison d'être of comedy is simply to amuse, that could be enough. The problem is that director James Chapman seems to have split the cast in terms of performance style, and failed to clearly mark the play's focus. As a result, the laughs are uneven, and the story seems oddly tiresome.
The great pleasure in this production is found in the characters of Winn (Shawn Law), Deeping (Bill Higham) and Blyton (Karen Nelson), and the Scots groundskeeper McNab (Nolan Palmer). Higham and Nelson both have the subtlety and technique of fine character acting. The laughs they generate are the most satisfying because the characters are believably proportioned and entirely self-contained. First we see the person, then the situation, then the comedy of the two. Their dour experience is balanced by Shawn Law's grinning affability. These three draw an entirely believable parameter around the dreary experience of a government approved culture camp. Finally, Nolan Palmer has a field day with the uncultured, unfettered McNab. The sheer energy and investment of his performance deserves respect and appreciation, and got most of the show's best laughs.
The rest of the cast suffers from comedic over-exertion, that unfortunate tendency to "perform" rather than simply playing the character. Apparent effort spent trying to be funny is anathema to farce. Given their clear talent, this overstatement seems to me a directorial error.
That same imbalance is evident in the play's tendency to have quite funny segments and bits, but to lack continuity and an overall drive. It also seemed the director was unclear as to what the play's actual climax was. Consequently, it arrived at four or five different destinations, making the end of the play feel extended and anticlimactic.
"Balmoral" is not meant to be any sort of weighty theatre, but that doesn't mean it's simple. Such intelligent farce requires the expertise of an old-fashioned watchmaker. This particular device, this production, has many fine parts. What it needs now is tuning by an expert craftsman, a better balance of fine levers and gears, and a more convincing demonstration that its mechanism has not become obsolete.
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