All Through The House

Though drawn out, a superb cast and an intricate plot help Judith King's festive farce break with tradition, making it the feel-good hit of the winter

Hmm, I think I may be missing the farce gene. Whitehall and Brian Rix, dropped trousers, unexpected vicars and all those slamming doors – it leaves me cold. All Through The House though, neatly subverts the genre.

Traditionally the farceur protagonist will have a series of unfortunate events thrust upon them and through comically poor choices will make the situation much worse. In Judith King’s play, however, the cast are all loaded with secrets from the off and it is their procrastination and cowardice that leads to the hysteria that follows.

In a traditional farce a befuddled waiter will enter a scene at exactly the wrong moment and get entirely the wrong idea. Here all of the big revelations are made by eaves-dropping and snooping – you get exactly the right idea about what is going on every time. In fact the plot is entirely driven by these sneaky revelations. It’s a neatly done.

It’s early December and Carol (Mary Jordan) is preparing a Christmas dinner for her ex-husband Arthur (Stephen Beggs) who arrives puce in the face after a vigorous, exploratory session with a sun bed ahead of a holiday to the Canaries ('It’s a base tan!').

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Meanwhile their daughter Ruth (Victoria Armstrong) has been sleep-walking, a sure indicator of stress, having woken up in the wet fish aisle of the local supermarket. But what can be playing on her mind? Can it be her responsible position on Reign of Blood, the world’s most famous television programme (of which Carol is a star), where she is routinely undermined by her schmoozing assistant, John? Or is it something else, more pressing and more personal.

As the play continues more and more characters appear and the secrets pile high, each one teased and then exploded for maximum impact.

The cast are uniformly excellent, each a different, clearly defined character and mostly serving their own agenda. Mary Jordan’s classy Carol is glacial and refined; seething with bitterness and recrimination at her bumptious clown of an ex. Stephen Beggs brings real energy to the role of the failing businessman trying to spin as many plates as possible while presenting the veneer of a clubbable, affable man about town. 

Maria Connolly storms the stage as Wendy, Arthur’s partner, and the opposite of Carol’s ramrod straight deportment: she half slinks, half staggers across the stage, bellowing in a breathy, stuttering voice: she is the ghost of Christmas party present, forever only a glass of wine away from an inappropriate altercation with a photocopier.

She is the lady of misrule: whether she is copping a feel from an appalled Ruth: 'Look at your wee diddies in that top! Where did they come from?' or singing alone and panda-eyed on Sing Star – is this the first time she’s ever sung Sing Star on stage? It seems unlikely! – it is a bravura performance.

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Victoria Armstrong has the hardest job to do as she is the fulcrum of the entire piece – as Ruth she imagines herself to be the repository of the family secrets. When she discovers that there is one secret that she is not privy to she is devastated.

Ruth is, in turn, baffled, bemused, angry, betrayed and driven to the verge of a nervous break-down, all of which Armstrong handles admirably. Bernadette Brown’s Pat is a surprisingly sophisticated creation – initially she seems like a bonsai version of Wendy, but she makes a surprising last minute bid to be the voice of reason.

Only Shaun Blaney as Wolfe has little to do, attempting a peculiar accent and being required to take his shirt off a lot. He does get one of the better lines, puncturing an actor’s pretentiousness, when asked about his role in Reign of Blood. 'He’s not so much an evil King,' he muses, 'just...complex!'

The script is not exactly larded with sizzling one-liners but it tells its increasingly complicated story competently enough. The play though is seriously overlong, whole scenes could be scrapped and those remaining tightened up and it would be sharper and funnier. And the final scene, no spoilers, popular though it is with the crowd, doesn’t really feel earned.

But these are really minor quibbles: the audience loves it. And at Christmas what more do you need? It’s the feel-good hit of the winter.

All Through The House runs at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, until December 19. Tickets can be booked through the venue box office and website.