Stephen Sharkey’s a Liverpool playwright who specialises in adaptations, and his latest work is based on L’Hôtel du Libre Echange (‘The Free Exchange Hotel’), a French farce by Georges Feydeau that was a big Parisian hit in 1894.
As the ‘three day week’ reference in the title indicates, Sharkey has moved the play’s action to Britain in the winter of 1973/4, when prime minister Ted Heath’s response to a miners’ strike was to impose a three day working week to conserve coal stocks. There were also regular blackouts, a handy plot device for anyone writing a farce and one that Sharkey makes good use of.
As you’d expect from a farce, there’s a large cast of characters, whose romantic relationships become hopelessly entangled. Adding to the fun is a mynah bird, whose voice is provided by none other than Ken Dodd (which by itself guarantees this production a place in show business history).
Philip and Angela live next door to Catherine and Robert. While both wives have grown tired of their husbands, Philip’s strongly attracted to Catherine. When he invites her to join him for a night of illicit passion at a local hotel, where unknown to them Robert will also be staying, the expected mayhem ensues as mid-life crises simultaneously come to the boil. Added to the combustible mix are a sleazy hotel manager (an excellent performance from Javier Marzan), a pretty French au pair and a confused old lady who gets mistaken for a ghost (played by the much admired Liverpool actress Eileen O’Brien).
Serdar Bilis’s direction keeps things moving at a fast pace as, in time-honoured fashion, characters make hasty exits and entrances and are discovered in various states of undress. The Seventies are cringingly well evoked, with period clothes, hairstyles and décor, alongside other touches such as a corrupt policeman and a character who’s reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. The domestic discord in the play also chimes with a decade in which divorce rates rocketed as women’s liberation and the free love movement encouraged people to explore life outside the marital straitjacket. In fact there’s a pleasantly nostalgic air about the whole night, in a play that seems to combine elements of Brian Rix’s Whitehall farces, Abigail’s Party, Fawlty Towers and The Good Life.
The cast all acquit themselves well, though Tom the mynah bird might well have stolen the show if Ken Dodd had been given a few more lines (those he did have were delivered with customary aplomb).
Of course the main requirement of a farce is that it should be funny, and in that respect the extended hotel sequence in the second half is the strongest part of the play. The comedy really takes off here, in a way that doesn’t quite happen in the opening and closing sections, though they have their moments. Overall it’s an enjoyable evening, and Sex and the Three Day Week looks set to provide many people with a lot of laughs over the holiday season.
Sex and the Three Day Week continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 10 January 2015. For more information, click HERE.