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Undoubtedly the name of Rick Mayall prompted many people to book tickets for Michael Frayn’s farce Balmoral.
When the star of television’s The New Statesman and Bottom had to pull out through illness shortly before the opening night, the lesser known comedian/actor Steve McNeil had the onerous task of stepping into his shoes as Skinner, the linchpin of the play.
As a result I am sure we had a very different perspective on Frayn’s political and literary spoof which imagines the revolution of 1917 happened in Britain rather than Russia.
The action takes place in 1937 in a room at Balmoral Castle which is now a writer’s retreat. Frayn chose four real early twentieth century writers as the mixed bag in residence – Enid Blyton (Alison Skilbeck), Godfrey Winn (Robert Hands), Warwick Deeping (Jeremy Child) and Hugh Walpole.
Skinner (Steve McNeil) is the warden whose job is to keep the writers writing and make sure every paper clip and ping pong ball is accounted for. His efforts are undermined by the vagaries of the writers and the dour butler/cook/handyman McNab (Andy Gray).
Skinner is a pernickety little civil servant who lives in fear of the regime and an imminent government inspection.
His panic is deliciously palpable when Walpole vanishes just a Russian journalist, Kochetov (Gyuri Sarossy), arrives, initially mistaken for the inspector, to interview Walpole.
The household assumes the author has offended the authorities and been snatched in the night. Far from worrying about his fate they begin an undignified scramble to claim his room, which is the warmest in the chilly castle.
The situation unravels rapidly as the earthy McNab is forced to impersonate Walpole for the visiting Russian, and whisky begins to flow.
In the absence of Mayall who would have dominated as Skinner, Andy Gray seized the comic initiative. And I’m not sure we didn’t get a more balanced ensemble as a result.
It is quirky, sharply observed, and well timed.
It runs until August 29.