Theatre reviews: Thark | The Day I Found The Blues

Thark stars Mark Elstob and Anna McGarahan. Picture: contributed
Thark stars Mark Elstob and Anna McGarahan. Picture: contributed
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IT only takes a glance at the current EU referendum campaign to remind us how many people still long for the imagined past represented in old English country-house dramas, where everyone is either the owner of a country house, or – for light relief – a Cockney servant working in one.

Thark | Rating: *** | Pitlochry Festival Theatre

The Day I Found The Blues | Rating: *** | Oran Mor, Glasgow

So Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s boss John Durnin has perhaps pulled off a box office master-stroke in choosing, this summer, to stage Ben Travers’s 1927 farce Thark, a play that offers about as hoary a bunch of stereotyped English characters, and about as reassuring a reversion to an imaginary 1920s England, as any audience could well imagine.

Staged at Pitlochry in a recent adaptation by Clive Francis, the story revolves around an old rogue called Sir Hector Benbow, who presides over a classic farcical first act at his Mayfair home when his plan to have dinner with Cherry Buck, a comely young shop assistant, is interrupted both by the arrival of the nouveau-riche Mrs Frush – the new owner of the creaking country house known as Thark, once the property of Sir Hector’s ward, Kitty – and by the unexpected return of Lady Benbow from a visit to Bath.

Predictable antics ensue, as the cheerfully self-serving and insensitive Sir Hector tries to blame his hapless nephew Ronnie Gamble for Cherry’s presence, and to get his put-upon butler and maid to cover for him. And things only become sillier when the entire party responds to Mrs Frush’s complaint that Thark is haunted by travelling there en masse, setting up a second act that moves from spooky dining-room to haunted bedroom like some protracted pantomime ghost scene; and ends – after some sprightly dialogue and laboured slapstick – with a spectacular coup de theatre involving Nigel Hook’s magnificent and witty set, which emerges as the only real star of a show so short of a sustained storyline that it hardly even qualifies as vintage farce.

In Glasgow, meanwhile, David Anderson launches the new Play, Pie and Pint summer season of mini-musicals with The Day I Found The Blues, a reworking with extra songs of the story told in his 2013 show Butterfly Kiss, about his 15-year-old self on a family holiday in Girvan in 1960, and a brief romance that changed his life.

In this version, there’s a little more purposeful social comment – including a great song for Anderson’s son Davey as a racist weekend club singer – and a strong, deliberate mix of new songs and 1960 chart hits, from Summertime Blues to At The Hop. There’s some beautiful observation of the boy’s parents, including a great song about what it meant to belong to the generation who got married in 1940. And there’s touching characterisation and fine singing from Gregor Mackay as the boy, in a show that breaks little new ground in its plot and dialogue, but succeeds, like all the best Anderson shows, in opening up new areas of thought and questioning through its finest songs.

• Thark is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 13 October; The Day I Found The Blues, run ends today