Hugo Millard enjoys the slapstick comedy of The Landlord’s Arms at the Durham Drama Festival.

The third and final show of General Programme 2 is Charles Pipe’s goofy gangster comedy, The Landlord’s Arms, which follows the paperboy Rodger (Izzy Cowell) as he enters into the criminal underworld of the 1960s.

With this play, Pipe is able to bring his unique sense of humour to life on stage for the audience to experience, creatively making considerable use of the juxtaposition between well-timed deadpan delivery and moments of pure slapstick entertainment. This melodramatic form fit well with the subject of the play, riffing on the stereotype of the incompetent London gangster and bringing its realization on stage to new heights. That said, this over-the-top style was maintained throughout the whole performance and credit must be given to the cast for managing to maintain such a high level of energy throughout. However, the occasional touches of absurdism were perhaps a little ill-suited to the already melodramatic staging, sometimes leaving the audience baffled or unconvinced but generally brought back into the fun of the play with the following gag. Though not consistent in the audiences’ reception, which generally shifted between hysterical laughter and resounding silence, the failed or questionable gags didn’t detract from the cast’s unstoppable energy, which carried the play through to its close.

However, though a bold creative decision to maintain a consistent minimalist aesthetic – with Pipe only sometimes introducing a table and chairs to the stage – the performance seems an odd choice for the Assembly Rooms Theatre, especially as this self-conscious lack of set and slapstick physical theatre are important comic aspects to the play’s humour. As a result, the stage was often left feeling empty, or at best underused, with most of the action taking place between two or three actors set centre front. However, in a smaller, studio-based venue this would not be an issue and the performance would likely be able to maintain the goofy, over-the-top atmosphere that was sometimes lost in the empty space of the Assembly Rooms. That said, creative use of a more maximalist style of costuming meant that this minimalism was turned into a comic feature in itself, suggesting a humorous awareness at its own displacement in the more traditional, grand theatrical setting.

The cast worked tirelessly on stage, improvising around dropped gags or lapses in the plot to maintain a constantly moving, lively atmosphere, playing off the audience’s reactions to push the boundaries of comedy further and further. Special mention must go to Izzy Cowell, playing Rodger, and Emily Oliver, playing Johnny; together they provided distinctly unique and memorable characters, each having impressive comic control over their melodramatic nature – something which they were able to consistently maintain over the course of the show.

The Landlord’s Arms is part of General Programme 2 of the Durham Drama Festival, playing at the Assembly Rooms Theatre.