Are You Being Served?

Are You Being Served?

Adelaide Repertory Theatre. Arts Theatre. 31 Mar to Apr 9.

At approximately 8:32 pm AEST on Thursday, 31 March 2011, a devastating tsunami hit the Arts Theatre.  This extremely slow moving, dangerous wave destroyed almost everything in its path.  Nearly all the set was swept away.  Where once the fusty yet prestigious Grace Brothers department store once stood, only a few crummy remnants of showcases and counters were left (set design – Ian Maitland).

Almost all the merchandise must have floated out to sea.  The actors, too, were swept away, their voices disappearing as the excruciatingly slow wave drove its way into canyons of yawning silences, mistiming, cringeful mugging and missed opportunities.  Still, they valiantly pedaled furiously below the water, trying to keep their heads above the soup – some drowned, some survived.

Georgia Dodd found a smart little lifeboat in her portrayal of the saucy Miss Brahms and Rob Parnell as the gay Mr Humphries smartly steered around the floundering rocks of camp and instead exuded a fetching effeminate charm. Andrew Dowling also was on the right course but was swamped by the wave.  Nearly everyone else was hysterical instead of hysterically funny.

Without sufficient rehearsal or direction, the actors seemed lost or even trapped.  Amazingly, the highest salients of Jeremy Lloyd’s and David Croft’s 1970s script, now a nostalgic emblem for the smutty humour of Benny Hill and America’s Laugh In (these guys were amongst the originators of this sort of British humour), survived the indolent treatment of director Ian Maitland, a miracle that must be a testimony to the indestructibility of the gags.

In the second act, the refugees from the Grace Brothers disaster had to spend the night in a tent camp in faraway Spain as the host of the comical Bernardo played by Damien White.  A potentially hilarious dinner scene was stuck in a far corner of the stage under dim lighting by Laraine Wheeler and what should have been a farcical romp of mistaken identity in a fast paced exchange of places was just a farce of a production in which the actors appeared and disappeared like incorporeal beings. When the final gag ended with a whimper, some actors, as if they couldn’t wait to get off stage, began lining up for curtain call while others bravely seemed to continue the play.

This show was in no shape to go on, but indeed it went on and on and on.  Incredibly, in the original TV series of the 1970s, Lloyd and Croft had not forgotten the war.  Never before have so few been so mislead for so long in front of so many unfortunates as in this production.  

David Grybowski