Pros: Pure gold for pun-enthusiasts.
Cons: Being unfamiliar with the original BBC radio show, I haven’t fully enjoyed its comic potential.
The White Bear is a lovely pub just off Kennington station, which prides itself not only on a fine food selection but on a prestigious programme of shows, too. Under the wing of its founder and artistic director Michael Kingsbury, the onsite theatre is gone from a shabby backroom to a fully equipped upstairs auditorium which, in 2001, had received a Time Out Award for the Best Fringe Theatre and a Peter Brook Award for Best Up and Coming Theatre. Its benches, positioned on two sides, are comfortable and well-distanced, but you can expect them to be packed during popular evenings.
The Men From the Ministry is a stage revival of the popular BBC radio comedy that was broadcast between 1962 and 1977. Set in the imaginary ‘General Assistance Department’, it is the ruthless parody of two British Civil Servants, always absorbed in tedious tasks, complete with bowler hats and brollies.
In the first episode, Lost in Space, Deryck Lennox-Brown (Stephen Critchlow) and Richard Lamb (Robin Sebastian) are in charge of supervising the Anglo-American Space Project. The disastrous outcome is amicably described by the authors as a ‘SNAFU’ (Situation Normal, All F . . . d Up) and sees the two functionaries accidentally launched in space at 7,500 miles per hour.
The second act implies two episodes, which alternate on different nights – ‘a cunning ruse to get you to buy two tickets and keep our cast on their collective toes’, the programme explains. Tonight is the turn of A Terrible Weapon. Lamb gets rid of a pram full of discarded trinkets, which his superior mistakes for a terrible weapon, the ‘wotsit’, and attracts even the attention of the Russian intelligence. Personally, I found this second part more engaging than the first and it’s a shame that it isn’t on every night.
The set is the faithful reconstruction of a late Sixties recording studio, with plain lighting and microphones that seem to stutter repeatedly. Most of the sound effects are created on stage by the studio assistant and some of them are quite original. A handle attached to a wooden box is used to recreate a slamming door and the two half coconut shells that come in handy to reproduce the noise of horse hooves.
The choice of costumes is confusing and might be considered a faux-pas. All the male characters seem dressed in Sixties fashion, whereas Sydney Stevenson (in the role of Mildred) is wearing modern-day shoes.
The rhythm is fast-paced and the punch-lines come out in rapid succession, with a verve that is more often found in a comedy club than a conventional theatre. A star-studded cast conveys an infectious enthusiasm across the auditorium and a special ‘applause’ sign, occasionally switched on by the studio assistant (Lucy Sullivan), invites the audience to participate. One of the major risks of putting up a quintessentially British comedy on London’s stage though, is that the frequently non-British spectators might not fully appreciate its potential. Some of the most brilliant jokes, in fact, are inevitably rooted either in the popular culture or in the subtleties of the language itself and this has been my main struggle, with many highlights slipping between the lines of a cryptic pun.
The Men From the Ministry might not appeal to every audience, but is by far one of the most delightful pieces of vintage comedy and has a lot to teach about British humour and its long-standing tradition.
Written By: Edward Taylor, Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke
Director: Michael Kingsbury
Producer: The White Bear Theatre
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk/play/men-from-the-ministry/
Booking Until: 14 January 2017