"Hens in the skirting board"
by Johnny Fox for remotegoat on 15/10/10

In the Victoria Wood 'shoe-shop' sketch, Julie Walters apologises for the haphazard service by telling her customer 'we think we've got hens in the skirting board'. It has the pattern of normal speech, but is patently absurd. The roots of this sort of comedy, in a long line from Monty Python to The Mighty Boosh stem directly from the absurdist writings of 'A Resounding Tinkle' author N.F. Simpson.

The trouble is that in the fifty years since he wrote it, audiences have been exposed to so much more of the same thing in sketch shows and stand-up routines that the original now seems rather less shiny.

Simpson's plays work best when they are delivered with as much naturalism, in set, costumes and acting as possible and you may feel shortchanged in Kim Moakes' production with a mere suggestion of the domestic surroundings of Bro and Middie Paradock. Ben Higgins and Lizzy Mace make a convincing married couple even though their performances may come from observation rather than experience: Simpson was satirizing their middle-class preoccupations rather than middle age, the original actors were also in their 20's.

Mace is best when she steps out of Middie's flatly argumentative character to quiz the audience directly as a white-coated researcher in technical theatre, and this and another couple of short bursts of comedy featuring Alex Morgan and Hayley Richardson as the live 'home entertainment' the Paradocks prefer to the radio are what lift the level of the performance, perhaps because the sketch-like structure and pointed delivery have become more familiar to contemporary theatregoers.

There are two versions of this play: a one-acter compressed into fifty minutes and this full-length extension. In the superfluous second half, the actors become four critics assessing the merits of the play in random accents and drawn-out conversations which undermine the naturalistic dialogue and emphasise how slowly the time seems to pass.

In his ex-pat life in Spain, N.F. is known to his friends as 'Wally Simpson' in homonymic reference to the Duchess of Windsor. This in itself is funnier than the whole of the current production.

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