Raising Martha, Park Theatre ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Farce, always an underrated theatrical form, is rarely found in new writing, with directors and producers seeming to prefer revivals of the medium. So it is refreshing to see David Spicer’s new play, traversing topics from familial guilt to animal rights and the freedoms we will surrender in order those same freedoms, embrace farce so wholeheartedly.

The Martha of the title is raised straight away, as animal rights campaigners Joel Fry and Tom Bennett indulge in a spot of grave-robbing, disinterring the remains of a matriarch whose sons inherited her farm that breeds frogs for dissection in school biology classes. Unbeknownst to them, however, the brother who remains on the property (Stephen Boxer) has converted the farm to cultivating marijuana, which he coats with the psychotropic venom of cane toads for an extra kick – and is not averse to giving his amphibian charges the occasional lick, resulting in hallucinations including a couple of six-foot tall frogs who want to cut him open…

The setting is so bizarre from the off that there is a distinct vibe of The League of Gentlemen, which also found humour in toad breeding. But the comedy is far broader, the internal logic of the piece far looser, and the emphasis on making its audience laugh on every line far stronger. There are several sequences where what appears to be the punchline of a joke turns out to also be the setup for the next, resulting in a barrage of rat-a-tat laughs even as the situations in which Spicer places his characters get more bizarre.

Pushing events onwards is Jeff Rawle’s DI Clout, a plodding rural copper investigating the activists’ blackmailing of Boxer and his brother (a gloriously spiky Julian Bleach) but who also regularly breaks the fourth wall to provide narration to the audience, and even to uncover a crucial piece of evidence by eavesdropping on events. Spicer takes the usual trope of the dogged rural detective and derives comedy from how little Rawle’s character deviates from it.

Elsewhere there are other elements that border on cliché, most especially a scene where an amorous affair is interrupted by one party’s partner. But even in such moments, the cast as a whole exhibit such comic timing that it is delightful to see such traditional elements of farce played out within such an absurdist premise.

As events spiral out of control, Boxer’s restrained, sardonic humour balances nicely with Bleach’s physical comedy, with a similar dynamic working between Fry and Bennett’s activists.

Spicer’s play, and its attempt to suggest that humans and animals are equals not because they should be elevated to our standards, but we drag ourselves down to theirs, unravels by the conclusion of the final scene. But it remains a hilarious comedy that, while not to everyone’s tastes, contains so many memorable lines and ridiculous scenarios that it proves to be a thrilling addition to the modern farce canon.

Continues until February 11.