Docs out to save laughs

Body of Evidence: Simon (Phillip Langhorne), left, looks on as Sir Lancelot (Robert Powell) gives a quick surgery lesson, assisted by matron (Gay Soper) and observed by Tony (Joe Pasquale) and John (Tom Butcher) with the porter  Bromley (Peter Dunwell) as the unwilling guinea pig.

Doctor in the House

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton


IN these hard strapped times of austerity the Grand's latest production is cracking value thanks to Joe Pasquale – buy one get two free.

Not only do you get a play, you also get a bit of stand up and a touch of panto thrown in.

The play is based on Richard Gordon's 1952 book and the subsequent 1954 film and, to be honest, the storyline, based on a script by the late Ted Willis and Richard Gordon, and set in the world of medical students in the 50s, is looking a bit dated these days. Like those of us who lived through the era, it is showing its age.

Hospitals no longer have eminent surgeons, the likes of Sir Lancelot Spratt, striding the corridors of their own hospital kingdoms, or, more's the pity, a battle-axe matron to strike terror into the hearts of doctors or nurses alike. These days our trusts or foundations, or whatever they are called this week, are run by suits with calculators, clipboards and bonuses.

So for the play to work we have to go back to the days of the fledgling NHS and the life and attitudes at the start of the the Queen's 60 year reign.

The production does its best to set the scene with a typical student flat – they at least haven't changed much – designed by the excellent Paul Farnsworth, complete with 50's cinema posters for The Girl with an Itch, which perhaps was a little premature as it was not released until 1958, and Forbidden Planet from 1956.

The period feel was enhanced with some period pop music which drifted well into the 60s but who cares. We got the picture.

Done as a straight play it would have had its moments but would hardly have had people laughing out loud and. it would have wasted the talents of Joe Pasquale. He seems to see any theatre as his enormous living room where he can play to his mates and make them laugh. He is a born entertainer.

The play opens with a harassed stage manager, played by Andrew Fettes, announcing that a cast member is ill and asking is there . . . a doctor in the house.

Student doctor Tony (Joe Pasquale) with his fiancee Vera (Emma Barton)

Fettes, incidentally, is one of the founders of The Ha Ha boys, one the funniest touring theatre companies around.

His call is answered by Pasquale, in character as Dr Tony Grimsdyke, who clambers up from the audience and then chats away to the audience, front of curtain, with a few jokes to set the scene from his student days long ago and away we go.

Pasquale cannot resist engaging the audience throughout the play with looks, grimaces and gestures and stops the action a couple of times for a chat which all adds to the fun, provides a lot of laughs and disguises what is a rather run-of-the-mill script of the 1950's Ealing comedy genre.

Not that that should detract from some fine performances. The role of Sir Lancelot will always be associated with James Robertson Justice but fine actor that he his, Robert Powell, puts his own stamp of authority on the role of the chief surgeon in the days when surgeons really did think they were God.

Tom Butcher, he of The Bill, was believable as womanising medical student John, sharing a flat with Tony, while Philip Langhorne gives a marvellous performance as Simon, who is is excruciatingly shy in his adventures with the opposite sex. Simon has just arrived at medical school and has been dumped on Tony and John as an enforced flatmate by his uncle, Sir Lancelot, which leaves the two old hands trying to show him the student ropes without a great deal of success.

The scene where he resists all advances from plain Jane, or in this case plain Janet, played beautifully by Rachel Baynton, is a classic in how not to handle women. He resists every encouragement and invitation from the scheming nurse who  could not have been more explicit had she had a neon sign flashing "take me I'm yours"- yet despite avoiding any sort of meaningful physical, or even mental contact he still ends up engaged.

That is the crux of the plot getting simple Simon out of the clutches of Janet and her aunt, the formidable matron, played by Gay Soper.

Helping the students and Sir Lancelote in the subterfuge are Tony's attractive French fiancée Vera played with some style by RSC actress and ex-EastEnder Emma Barton and Bromley, the larger than life, in more ways than one, porter, played wonderfully over the top by Pete Dunwell.

And through all that we hear the dulcet tones of Ozzy, the Australian nurse - and don't we know it, sport! She seems to be up for anything, or anyone for that matter, and is played wonderfully, if noisily and with all the subtlety of an outback dunny in a heatwave, by Allison McKenzie.  

The scene of the rehearsal of Tony's  Christmas play with the three flatmates, Bromley, Vera and Ozzy is a particular highlight, especially Ozzy's portrayal of tenderness which is a cross between rutting stags and a kangaroo in heat.

Essentially an uninspiring play is saved by excellent performances with not a weak link to be seen, and of course, the infectious fun brought to anything he is in by Joe Pasquale who makes the audience part of the show. And once you find you are in it you are going to enjoy it. Directed by Ian Talbot it runs to 16-06-12.

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile, from back of the ward . . .

* * *

POPULAR funnyman Joe Pasquale conducts his own bit of rib-tickling surgery to help bring this 1950s medical comedy more up to date.

Some of the humour in the story, written by Richard Gordon and Ted Willis, is inevitably a shade dated, particularly the sketch where trainee doctor Simon Sparrow (Phillip Longhorne) is so desperately shy with his latest girlfriend.

But former King of the Jungle Joe, playing medical student Tony Grimsdyke, plays himself at times, chatting to the audience before curtain up and later, while kissing shapely girlfriend Vera (Emma Barton), turns to the customers with a grin, saying: "I love this bit". It works well.

He has a few other exchanges with people in the front rows of the stalls as well as acting competently as the would-be doctor who repeatedly fails his exams by choice because a relative has left him a large sum of money for every year he studies medicine.

Robert Powell is convincing in his role as the pompous hospital chief surgeon, Sir Lancelot Spratt, who thinks he has stumbled on an orgy when he turns up during the students' rehearsal for a Christmas play. And he demonstrates his acting skills during a practice 'operation' on portly hospital porter, Bromley, played with terrific enthusiasm by Peter Dunwell.

Directed by Ian Talbot, Doctor in the House has people in stitches until16.06.12

Paul Marston 


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