Hatched ‘n’ Dispatched, a new play by Gemma Page & Michael Kirk currently running at the Park Theatre, has received a bumpy welcome from press reviews. The complaints primarily centre on a script criticised for presenting a series of cardboard cut-outs instead of characters, and it does not do itself many favours by presenting itself as ‘a mucky romp through the morals, memories and music of the 1950s’. The line conjures up images of bedroom farce and end-of-pier innuendo, whereas it feels like Page & Kirk are trying to find a way into rather more dark territory. If some of the more laboured and crude jokes give it the feel of Carry On Up The 1950s, there is a sense that at its heart the inspiration it draws from is closer to the social commentary that underpinned Joe Orton’s finest work and the pointed class anxieties of Mike Leigh.
It is the tonal inconsistencies that do most to scupper the production. The opening is one of a bawdy sex comedy before developing into broad farce. Whilst it is clear throughout that storm clouds are gathering, it never does enough to justify the shift in mood from the start of the second half. It opens with a misconceived domestic violence subplot (not a bad idea in itself but really uncomfortably handled) and proceeds to lurch between kitchen-sink drama, social realism, black comedy and Ibsen-esque naturalism.
Part of the trouble stems from a script that is not sharp enough to glide through the transitions. The dialogue never reaches the kind of heightened language that makes the baroque melodramas of Tennessee Williams or the Shakespearian monologues of Arthur Miller so memorable. The problem with recreating the kitchen-sink drama is that it was a dramatic style that perfectly fit the developing medium of TV, and as a style it was swallowed up and transformed into what we know as soap operas. Given that the cast is built around Wendi Peters, famous for her role on Coronation Street, it becomes difficult not to think of the play in these terms.
It is a shame because the cast are working hard to round out the characters, and in Dorothy Needham, Wendi Peters has a formidable role to work with. One can argue that she comes close to a caricature of a ‘northern battle-axe’, but Dorothy is still a wonderfully monstrous creation. She dominates her family, and it gives Peters the opportunity to dominate the stage. She takes on the role with lip-smacking relish. It is hard to avoid thinking of Hyacinth Bucket when seeing Peters in full flow, but Bucket’s persona was just a veneer to a fragile ego whereas Dorothy Needham is built of solid oak in comparison. She remains unphased by the foibles of her family members, and demonstrates a stoic self-sacrifice that one can regard as being as admirable in intention, as it is terrible in result.
Vicky Binns (Madeleine) and Matthew Frazer Holland (Olly) also turn in impressive performances. Signposting early on clearly marks them out as the good guys, but Madeleine’s impassivity is not lost amid the mayhem and is well balanced by Olly’s endearing stupidity. It is difficult not to root for them as a couple, even if the gaining of an allotment seems to be the only positive they get from the play.
Perhaps if the script had been worked on in lower key venues, and with a less star-studded cast that was always likely to attract press attention, there would have been an opportunity to iron out some of the more abrupt tonal shifts. It may have also led them to question the choice of the play’s last line, which may have been intended as a nod towards social realism but in a play that is broadly a comedy was not earned and an unfortunate misstep. The play is not nearly as bad as some reviews would suggest, but equally it is still some way from being the play that it wants to be.