Review: The Duck House

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 14 January 2014 in Culture
Laughing at their expense: Anoosh Chakelian reviews the new play about parliament’s expenses scandal

Moats, wisteria, manure, glittery toilet seats, hanging baskets, massage chairs, elephant lamps and a duck house. Sound familiar? Well, you bought them all at some point before May 2009. For our MPs, that is.

The beauty of this new production, The Duck House, following the demented escapades of a politician in deep duck pond-water when the press gets hold of all his colleagues’ embarrassing expense claims, is that it reminds us of the most bizarre excesses of the scandal.

All the wacky expense claims demonstrated or referred to in the play, including the eponymous offending item, are taken from the real-life expenses scandal, and serve to remind the audience how ludicrously many of our MPs behaved.

Protagonist and fraudster extraordinaire, defecting Labour MP Robert Houston (a pogoing, red-faced Ben Miller) goes from champagne-swigging, receipt-filing swaggerer to a Fawlty-esque desperate mess in the space of one scene, when the expenses scandal begins to break.

His unflustered wife Felicity, who shows composure and oblivion worthy of Marie Antoinette – in her Harrods apron she explains the necessity of her duck house: “a roof over their heads, somewhere to call home” – is brilliantly portrayed by Nancy Carroll.

After a few agreeable scenes of politics tennis – “Chris Huhne? Gave me a lift once, drove like a maniac”; “does Andy Coulson need my number? Oh, he has it already…” – the story tumbles into slick, slapstick farce as Tory “pitbull” Sir Norman Cavendish (Simon Shepherd) starts sniffing around the home (or is it the second home?) of his latest Conservative convert.

The whole cast give strong performances in a physically demanding piece. James Musgrave plays a convincing Labour MP’s son. “Yah, look, yah, I know,” he says, in his ‘I hate the G8’ hoodie. Ludmilla (played with gusto by Debbie Chazen) the live-in Russian cleaner’s Daily Mail-addled opinions are also excellent: “bring back the birch!”, “country is full” and “sterilise single mothers” lighten the mood.

Despite the strength of their acting, and the tightly coordinated farce, the play does descend too far into utter madness. Without revealing too much, I will say a scene involving spanking with a copy of the Lisbon Treaty is not even the most surreal. But the writers Dan Patterson and Colin Swash needn’t have tried so hard; such a wildly ridiculous plotline is unnecessary when covering a subject that is, in fact, stranger than fiction.

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