Thursday, 26 January 2017
Review Raising Martha
by David Spicer
Traffic Light Theatregoer here - your detective inspector of plays. And here's a clue that's been mildly puzzling for your theatrical bobby and her thespian vehicle.
School dissection of frogs - that had disappeared from TLT's curriculum by the time she got to Biology GCE. So the mention of 'O' Levels rather than GCSEs certainly felt strange in David Spicer's intermittently funny farce at the Park Theatre set in a contemporary farm for breeding frogs so that school kids can cut them up.
Hands up all schools which still dissect frogs?
We're not sure they still exist, so it's not surprising that Gerry Duffy (Stephen Boxer), a tune in, drop out left over beatnik from the '60s and '70s, has decided to diversify after jointly inheriting the farm from his deceased mother, the eponymous Martha.
It's the grave of Martha, the frog farming matriarch, which has also been targeted by clod digging and hopping eternal student-type animal activists. That's Jago (Joel Fry), so aggressive we wondered he might be an agent provocateur (we're not giving anything away), and his passively sweet accomplice Marc (Tom Bennett). They're out to close down the farm using Martha's remains as a ransom bargaining chip dug up on the upper tier of designer Rebecca Brower's two-tier set.
Then back to Gerry who, as we have said, has seen the market for dissection and vivisection vanish Ah, maybe he's gone into farming culinary veterbrates, you may think. But no. Be prepared to suspend disbelief again. Using the dwindling market for educational frogs as a front (?!!!), he's gone straight across to breeding psychoactive toads alongside growing pot, producing a particularly hallucinogenic form of wacky baccy.
We have to admit, even in the fantastic world of farce, we were a little bemused by this leap (leap, geddit, ribbit?) in logic, but we were willing to suspend disbelief. Even if the never-mentioned leap in electricity and water usage and the bills might have been a clue for the blundering but politically savvy Ortonesque Detective Inspective Clout (Drop The Dead Donkey's Jeff Rawle). After all, it could be a Gerry hallucination in his drug-addled existence.
Besides all this, there's Gerry's brother, co-beneficiary and snobbish would-be entrepreneur Roger (Julian) who has a hate-hate relationship with his brother, and Roger's daughter Caro (Gwyneth Keyworth) who has her own agenda in this amphibian environment.
Director Michael Fentiman, along with the cast, have obviously put in a lot of very hard work to keep the momentum of this farce going. But there's no disguising a script where often the gags and set-ups have come first, shoehorned in rather than placed for coherent reasons, even in this caricatured environment.
There are also more cryptic serious elements introduced regarding policing and even an askance look at the Cold War. But these do not feel especially organically thought through in the plot. And some parts of the plot, such as the six-foot amphibians, feel more suited to sketch comedy, radio or cartoon than a stage play
It may have worked for us if it had been shorter and tighter. But as a two-act comedy, it is a play held together by the fragile algae of an energetic cast and diligent direction. So it's an amber light for a froggy piece that doesn't manage to reach princely status, but remains a bit of a tadpole.