Brighton’s venerable Theatre Royal has a 205 year pedigree as one of the most beloved of all seaside theatres. It was once one of the most important try-out houses for West End bound shows, but its star has faded along with the touring theatre circuit that it is a part of. Now its owners ATG are seeking to reinvigorate both, launching an in-house producing company at Brighton under the artistic directorship of Christopher Luscombe to offer high quality productions that will then tour.
A scene from Dandy Dick at the Theatre Royal, Brighton Photo: Robert Workman
It should be a winning formula but the first show out of the starting gate runs a losing race, unfortunately. It’s a horse racing (but far from racy or pacey) comedy that was first premiered exactly 80 years after the theatre itself opened, and has a local connection because playwright Sir Arthur Wing Pinero actually wrote it in Brighton.
One of Luscombe’s avowed aims is to reclaim classic British stage comedies, but this one - receiving its first major revival for 40 years - is classic only in the sense that it’s old. Like a cross between The Importance of Being Earnest and Charley’s Aunt, with a bit of Dry Rot thrown in, a long widowed vicar (Nicholas Le Prevost) stakes money he doesn’t have on trying to secure matching sponsorship to repair the crumbling church spire, and has to stump up when the money is in fact pledged. Throw in his adult daughters’ expensive dress bills and the arrival of his estranged sister (the permanently elegant Patricia Hodge) who runs a horse race gambling syndicate, and the stage is set for him to find a way out of his financial mess by backing a race - except that his attempt to ‘fix’ the event inevitably leads to disaster.
It sounds fun on the page - but as Luscombe tries to fix the dated play, it creates only a sense of increasing, gussied up desperation. “I feel as though I’ve been walked over by a large concourse of the lower orders,” exclaims Nicholas Le Prevost’s vicar at one point, and so did I by the apparently higher ones on offer here.
It’s a play in which all the major events happen offstage and are merely reported to us afterwards. The actors of Luscombe’s production can’t resist nudging, winking and mugging to the audience to bring us on side. It sent me sinking even further into my seat.