Probably the best-known Evelyn Waugh satire these days is Scoop, which since it is required reading for all young journalists gets lots of media exposure. If you know Scoop, then there’ll be little to surprise you in Decline and Fall, Waugh’s first novel, which has been adapted for the stage (for the first time – oddly enough given its obvious comic possibilities, although it was filmed in 1969) by Henry Filloux-Bennett (no relation) for the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington.
We’re in the early 20th-century British elite – a corrupt, degraded, weak elite, where there’s no honour or justice or even commonsense. The centre of the story is Paul Pennyfeather (Michael Lindall), a young aristocratic scion (we don’t learn his backstory in the play) who’s haplessly caught up in a Bollinger club prank (with contemporary resonances that got a particularly broad laugh from the opening night audience).
From there we follow him on a rollercoaster ride to an employment agency, which sends him to a awful public school in Wales, where he meets the mother of one of the pupils, Mrs Beste-Chetwynde (Fay Downie), who apparently falls for him, and prepares to marry him in the nouveau-riche social event of the year. But it turns out her money comes from South American brothels, a link which ends up with Pennyfeather going down for seven years in jail.
It’s a whirlwhind ride in two hours with interval – particularly with the addition of a complicated subplot around the drunken master Captain Grimes (Sylvester McCoy – yes he of Dr Who fame), who finds himself trapped into signing up for bigamous marriage with the headmaster’s less than attractive daughter.
There are comic lines galore, and the classy cast play up the slapstick to the hilt – it’s almost more of a comedy show than a play (reflecting the background of a number of the cast).
It’s a fine technical debut for Filloux-Bennett at the Old Red Lion, and it has “transferring to the West End” written all over it. (Much of this would actually work better on a large stage with a bit more audience distance.)
All fine and well, but it did leave me thinking about the purpose of the fringe. Sure, producing shows that transfer to more lucrative venues has always been part of its role. And if there’s a need for a financial boost, why not.
But it would be a grave pity if fringe theatre in London went too far down this route. The fringe, to my mind, is the place where work that is challenging, avante garde, overtly political, has a chance to be seen and shine, a chance that it will never get in the West End. (The production I’ve seen at the Old Red Lion that I remember best was a piece of current-day Ukrainian samizdat, a show that was fine in its own right but whose staging also had a real political purpose.)
The production continues at the Old Red Lion until January 8 (with online booking).