December 11, 2013 5:38 pm

The Duck House, Vaudeville Theatre, London – review

Dan Patterson and Colin Swash’s lazy satire gets a far better production than it deserves
From left, Simon Shepherd, Ben Miller and Debbie Chazen in 'The Duck House'©Tristram Kenton

From left, Simon Shepherd, Ben Miller and Debbie Chazen in 'The Duck House'

Things Satire Needs – An Occasional Series: (1) Topicality. If too much time has passed, it ceases to be satire and becomes an easy sneer with the benefit of hindsight. And “too much time” is not all that much; the notion of Britain’s MPs being criminally overpaid may still be current (especially with the latest proposal to raise their salaries), but the parliamentary expenses scandal that is The Duck House’s target broke in mid-2009, making it ancient history as regards this sort of piece.

This is also related to (2) Potential for effect. Such effect need not be a real-world result such as a change of law; it may simply be about changing some people’s minds. There is, frankly, no danger of that here: Dan Patterson and Colin Swash’s comedy (like the current forms of the leading television series with which they have long been associated, Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week) plays entirely to our existing prejudices. And quite antique prejudices some of them are, too: not just “John Prescott is fat” (tedious fact) or “pompous Tory MP pays dominatrix” (tedious stereotype), but the biggest laugh on press night was because one character was northern. When an audience feels they have nothing either to gain (from reform) or to lose (from challenge to their complacency), satire loses all point.


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And the thing is, this is a fine production. Terry Johnson directs with equal attention to the broad farce and the sardonic one-liners; the physical business has the kind of precision I normally associate with Sean Foley as a director. Ben Miller makes an effective linchpin as an MP whose planned party switch from Labour to Conservative just as the expenses scandal breaks is endangered by his keen use of said facility; he embodies pretty much every reported excess, Labour or Tory, in one portmanteau of greed, culminating in the eponymous garden feature. Nancy Carroll is impregnably middle-class as his wife, and Debbie Chazen makes a wonderful Moscow-mafia housekeeper.

But the material doesn’t begin to deserve it. The vast majority of the comedy, not just about the expenses matter but taking in passing shots at pretty much every other political “outrage” of recent years, is lazier even than a dedicated couch potato. And satire that does not challenge ends up implicitly reinforcing the values in question, and that makes this not just poor theatre but also pernicious politics.

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