‘No Sex Please, We’re British’: Catherine Doherty builds a farce — meticulouslyBy Jim Lowe
“No Sex Please, We’re British” is a popular British farce, but its success is nearly as dependent upon the quality of the performance as it is upon the material itself. Catherine Doherty, who is directing the Northern Stage production, April 3-21 at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, says she has both.
“The script is terrific — and this cast is great,” he said. “It’s hilarious. And not only is it hilarious — it’s innocent.”
But creating successful farce, Doherty insists, is meticulous work.
“Good comedy and farce are like plastic surgery,” she said. “It takes a lot of meticulous, time-consuming work. You sew it back up for the first time, there’s some bruising and some yellowing, but once that all settles down, nobody should see the work that went into it.”
“No Sex Please, We’re British,” by Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriott, was first staged in London’s West End in 1971, going on to New York’s Broadway in 1973. In London, it was unanimously panned by critics, but audiences thought differently — it played to full houses until 1987.
The plot involves a bank manager, Peter Hunter, who lives above the bank with his new wife Frances. When she innocently orders some Scandinavian glassware, what comes back is Scandinavian pornography. The two, along with the bank’s cashier, Brian Runnicles, must contend with the veritable flood of pornography, books, films and, eventually, girls.
“In this day of Internet porn, this is so innocent,” Doherty said. “And, still, the world is falling apart for them — just from some postcards, a blue film and a couple of women.
“It’s well constructed,” she said. “The two playwrights just offer such strong guideposts. And the structure is so good, because the stakes keep getting higher and higher for innocent reasons – not necessarily for devious reasons.”
For Doherty, Northern Stage’s producing director with a long history of successful comedy, this is good material.
“I think it works because it exploits, in a very good way, those necessary elements of farce — like near misses, mistaken identity, a collapsed amount of time — it takes place in only 48 hours in one location,” she said. “While they don’t have a deadline, like many farces have, they have to solve the problem quickly. And because all of those elements work in this particular script, it’s very, very tight.”
And therein lies the challenge, avoiding what Doherty calls “farce fatigue.”
“You have to find strategies for these characters when things are falling apart. You don’t want to get into melodrama and whining about the problems,” she said. “I have to make sure that the company stays on target and driving through the material, rather than the material dragging them along. They have to propel the story rather than the story dragging them.”
The characters, Doherty said, should not have time to come up with a logical way to solve the problem.
“They have to think right off the top of their heads,” Doherty said. “One of the things we had to talk about early on was that they have to lie their way through things — and to what degree are they good liars? The audience knows that they are lying, but the characters they are speaking to don’t know that they are lying. That’s a tricky balance to strike.”
Unlike drama, and even most comedy, actors must be physically able to deliver the complexities of the script.
“There has to be a good athleticism in terms of getting the timing of door-slamming, those near misses and those double takes,” Doherty said.
And, if that weren’t enough, the characters have to be believable in order for audiences to be able to relate to them.
“It can’t be funny for funny sake — and that’s not to say I don’t mine the work for comic bits — but it has to be funny because it’s recognizably funny in all of us,” Doherty said.
Some actors have a tendency to take their characters “over the top.”
“The challenge is to rein them in and make sure, if you’re going to go over the top, you have to earn it,” Doherty said. “You have to earn that particular crazy face, you have to earn that particular freak out. It can’t just come out of nowhere.”
Of course, the biggest challenge in comedy — and particularly in farce — is split-second timing.
“We can spend a half an hour on a sequence of two or three door slams and five or six lines,” Doherty said. “‘Is it funnier to slam the door before the line?’ ‘Can you get to the door and have it open by the time you get to your tag line?’
“In drama you’re not so preoccupied that the rhythm and the percussion of those door slams are working within the text. You have to have that in comedy,” Doherty said. “In drama, you have that same kind of timing that you have to do, but you’re charting an emotional course, not a physical course.”
In short, comedy requires discipline.
“It’s appropriate that March Madness is happening because I am the coach that says, ‘Oh, no, no, no, we stick to the game plan’,” Doherty said.
Is it all worth it?
“There’s nothing better,” Doherty said. “What other profession do you get to ask the question, at least one or two times an hour, ‘What’s funnier, if we do this, or is this funnier?’ That’s just such a delight.”
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