Director Anthony Gooley performed in a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a few years ago and on this very stage.
Is it just me or is there a lingering influence of that experience in his staging of US comedian Steve Martin’s The Underpants?
When the unhappy young wife Louise Maske places her hand on the door of her apartment, preparing to leave – perhaps – her stuffy, unsatisfying marriage, she becomes, in that instant, another Nora Helmer. It adds a thickening layer to what could otherwise be little more than a breezy, faintly saucy comedy on gender politics and travails of instant notoriety.
Adapted from German satirist Carl Sternheim’s 1911 play Die Hose and retaining its pre-WWI setting, the story is set in motion by an unfortunate event. While cheering a parade headed by Kaiser Wilhelm, Louise (played here by Gabrielle Scawthorn), the wife of a civil servant, accidentally drops her bloomers.
She hauls them up in a flash but her embarrassment does not go unnoticed. In fact, she is now the talk of the town.
Her boorish husband Theo (Duncan Fellows) is mortified and believes the incident may well cost him his pen-pushing job. And for two witnesses – one a poet, one a barber – the brief glimpse of Louise’s … actually, it’s never made clear exactly what they saw … proves particularly inflaming.
Each turns up at Louise and Theo’s apartment, hoping to rent the spare room. They end up sharing.
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Gooley has a very adept and agile cast to work with and all contribute strongly to a production that leavens a high comic style with touches of palpable emotion. Martin’s characters could so easily be played as caricatures but here they seem well-rounded and their foibles human.
The production looks good, with a woody, period-styled set by Anna Gardiner (also responsible for the excellent costuming) and Benjamin Brockman’s lighting.
Scawthorn is deliciously conflicted as Louise, a woman who guiltily blossoms amid all the attention she generates.
Fellows is very funny as the earthy but dreary Theo, a not-so closeted anti-Semite whose notions of love and sex are the stuff of the barnyard.
Beth Daly proves a reliable scene-stealer as Louise’s busybody neighbour Gertrude, who gets her vicarious kicks facilitating Louise’s assignations.
Ben Gerrard is crisply hilarious as the poet Versati and Robin Goldsworthy floats soft notes of sadness into the proceedings as Cohen, the mild-mannered Jewish barber (and Wagner nut) who devotes himself to spoiling Versati’s carnal ambitions. A long and humorously pathetic wrestling match between Louise’s would-be lovers is a highlight of this 90 minute show.
Tony Taylor is very effective, entering late in the proceedings as a stiff-backed academic named Klinglehoff.
The Underpants isn’t a challenging piece by any means but this fine production makes it an enjoyable one with Louise’s uncertain fate giving you just a little something to chew over afterwards.