Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Vic, Charmaine and Rex

Liz Webster as Charmaine, Rob Bissett as Vic and David Weller as Rex

Smelling a Rat

Grange Playhouse


YOU are left with a strange feeling of unease by the opening to this Mike Leigh black comedy.

I mean, who is this bloke who walks into an empty bedroom, obviously returning from a trip of some sort, and proceeds to unpack without a word – except for some tuneless mumbling of a song?

And then, why, when he is apparently getting ready to go to bed, after chucking a collection of stuffed toys around the room, does he dart into one of his six wardrobes to hide when he hears voices coming from the hall?

And while you are pondering that, who are the couple who appear in the bedroom who don’t seem to be there trying to nick anything, rather just there to be nosy?

At least they help us out with that, he being Vic, and she his wife Charmaine. It transpires Vic is a verminator, not so much Arnold Schwarzenegger, more Rentokil – or in this case the Vermination Pest Control Company and he is on his way home with tarty wife Charmaine.

Now inasmuch, a favourite expression, as Vic is there, he is there as a favour. Rex Weasel, and yes the name does suit, is the owner of the the aforementioned extermination company and had asked one of his employees to check his apartment while he was away with his wife in the Canaries over Christmas.

But, inasmuch as the employee was doing a bit of moonlightinRock and Melanie Janeg elsewhere, he had asked Vic, to do him a favour and check for him, hence Vic and Charmaine are taking the opportunity to have a nose around the boss’s gaff – and slag him off at the same time, which is not the best career move inasmuchas it looks like the boss is holed up in wardrobe 6.

Sam Evans as Rock in what passes as a romantic encounter with girlfriend Melanie-Jane played by Rachel Holmes - with Kermis played by himself.

Rob Bissett and Liz Webster are great fun as the couple intellect forgot, complete with a beautifully jarring estuary English accent. Webster’s ohhs and ahhs and extended vowels are a delight as she flounces about with just the right balance between sexy and common in a shiny bell skirt dress and glossy tights.

Bissett’s Vic is one of nature’s philosophers, a man with a view on anything and everything, all backed up with a less than certain grasp of the lengthier entries in the English lexicon and a knowledge base similar to most people’s grasp of mediaeval Polynesian midwifery . . . although Vic would probably have something to say about that if it ever surfaced amid the jumble of thoughts colliding between his ears.

He prattles on endlessly, in a wonderful performance. It is not an easy part, talking constant unrelated nonsense at breakneck pace takes both memory and stamina and he does a fine job.

But hark, we hear voices again, and in a panic Vic and his wife hide in wardrobes 1 and 2 as a new couple enter, Rex’s son Rock, played by Sam Evans, who one assumes is a big Paul Simon fan as he communicates largely by the sound of silence, aided by various shades of sulleness, arrives with his girlfriend Melanie-Jane, a quite excellent performance from Rachel Holmes, who fills the silence with a stream of mundane trivia.

Rock occasionally tries to seduce Melanie-Jane with all the subtly and enthusiasm of a bored pebble in between his normal modes of largely silence, listening to music on his headphones and throwing in the odd useless non sequitur, such as telling her “there are three million prostitutes in Thailand.”

On this scant evidence we assume he has brought his girl back to his parent’s bedroom in the hopes of some horizontal exercise, while she, in turn, has a theory that talking and sex are mutually exclusive – thus she keeps talking. That is until she discovers Vic and Charmaine hiding in thrats postere wardrobes and then, left alone, is confronted by Rex leaping out of wardrobe 6 waving a gun. All too much for her and she screams and vanishes into the en suite while the audience retire to the bar.

The shorter second act sees David Weller as a sort of slightly sinister, bully of a man as Rex. A man who seems more concerned with getting the now silent Melanie-Jane out of his “bog” because he wants a pee than all the goings on around him.

We discover he is more upset at his son having keys to his penthouse than he is about Vic having a set, and that his son has not spoken to him for years, but we never find out why.

We find he has returned home early but there is no explanation of why nor where his wife is, and we discover Vic has a criminal record and Charmaine might also have one, but we are not sure on that one, or what it might be for. And at the end we are left as we started with everyone gone and an empty bedroom.

As a production, director David Stone, who also designed the attractive set, has instilled a good pace and it is a well acted piece with some lovely timing and some wonderful scenes, such as when Vic pontificates to an exasperated Rex as Charmaine whines on to Melanie-Jane through the en suite door, attempting to persuade her to come out. Two conversations in a cacophony of trivial wittering.

The problem is that not a lot actually happens. Mike Leigh is a bit of a Marmite writer, with Abigail’s Party, originally for TV, perhaps his best known stage work. He has a reputation for turning mind numbingly boring normal conversation into comedy gold, and at times it is very funny – such as when Charmaine is trying to understand Vic’s convoluted views on life.

But much of the time the conversation is what it is, mindless and ordinary, it’s like eavesdropping on none too bright passengers on a train, unknown people who don’t really have anything interesting to say.

Leigh leaves us eavesdropping as an audience. We never know enough about the characters to engage with or care about them. Perhaps that is the point. We are observers rather than participants, left with questions posed but answers have we none. A DIY plot.

What happened between father and son, whether Rock’s mother is alive, dead, waiting dutifully for Rex’s return, or shacked up with a Spanish waiter - we will never know. And there are the holes in logic, such as why Rex would remain hidden when he realised the intruders were first his employee and his wife, then his son and girlfriend?

I must admit I am not a Mike Leigh fan, others rate him highly though and declare him a darkly funny writer. If you count yourself among the latter then you will surely enjoy this production. If among the former then you can still appreciate some fine acting in a polished production. To 24-09-16

Roger Clarke


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