Originally written for www.whatsonstage.com
It’s no mean feat turning a 224 page book into a pacey 2 hour play but Henry Filloux-Bennett’s sprightly version does just that. Through a mixture of knowing re-enactments, re-tellings and re-jigging Decline and Fall has been laced together cannily.
A chameleon cast shift from one character to another as our put-upon hero Paul Pennyfeather is pushed from pillar to post by a cavalcade of cartoon caricatures. It’s a clever whirlwind, with at one point Emily Murphy having to address and answer herself; it could have been disastrous but in this charming actress’ hands it’s a lovely moment. We are very aware this is a show we are watching; these are actors and this is a theatre dontcha know.
This works on the whole, but the ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudging’ means that each rolling of the eye or change of posture is performed to its zenith. Sometimes this drowns out Evelyn Waugh’s own delicately balanced lampooning and the whole thing could have benefited from a slightly lighter touch.
Sylvester McCoy’s elastic clowning is fun to watch and he’s obviously a much loved performer, relishing the palpable waves of affection he gets from the audience. He doesn’t hog the limelight however and has solid support from all, although the dastardly Fay Downie as femme-fatal Mrs Beste-Chetwynde and Murphy’s very funny Florence Fagan fly slightly higher than the rest.
To The Manor Born meets Evelyn Waugh, this Christmas you could do a lot worse than the funny, if a little hammy, Decline and Fall.