The Doppel Gang by Dominic Hedges introduces us to four mediocre performers attempting to save their cash-strapped theatre. After stumbling rather inexplicably on a stash of unproduced Marx Brothers material, they decide to try and pull off the ultimate con, impersonating the rising American stars in front of a London audience desperate to escape the horrors of the Blitz. Can they pull it off and make their escape with the cash, or will they be caught out?
It’s a fun idea, and the cast certainly seem to be enjoying themselves from the outset. The play opens with a Fawlty Towers-esque sketch scene, in which frustrated theatre owner Lombard has to deal with an incompetent workman up a ladder. Though it has little if anything to do with the rest of the story, it’s a well-fashioned salute to British humour, and sets up a nice contrast with the all-American comedy that dominates Act 2.
In fact, The Doppel Gang, directed by Terence Mann, takes great pleasure in lining up British and U.S. comedy alongside each other, and it makes the play very much one of two halves; Act 2 consists almost entirely of the group’s Marx Brothers act, whereas before the interval the focus is on establishing the characters and their often fractious relationships. Cyril (Jordan Moore) and Tommy (Peter Stone) can’t stand Lombard (Jake Urry), who they know full well is just using them for his own ends. And male impersonator Rachel (Rachel Hartley) is getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect she gets from the audience or her fellow performers – including her boyfriend Tommy.
The four characters’ constant sniping, and especially Rachel’s feisty disdain for the men she has to deal with, provided for me the funniest moments – although there are plenty of laughs to be found elsewhere too, especially for fans of the Marx Brothers. The cast’s enthusiasm for their subject is obvious, although not being an expert, I’ll leave it to those who know to judge the accuracy of their tribute act. And as the Brits, the four are just likeable and optimistic enough for us to overlook their conscription-dodging ways and wish them success.
There’s a subplot to all this, of course, in the threat of war that hangs over them all, and in the revelation of a secret that places one of the characters at even greater risk. The abrupt, subdued ending, coming so swiftly after half an hour of zany merriment, brings us back to earth with a bump, and out into the cold feeling slightly wrongfooted.
The set is really impressive for such a small space, with individual components – including a mobile proscenium arch – manoeuvred smoothly into position to take us on stage, off stage and on one occasion, underground. This gives the impression the stage is a lot bigger than it is, an idea backed up by Mitchell Reeve’s sound design, which recreates both the rumblings of war outside and the theatrical acoustics inside.
It’s a risky enterprise to make a comedy, because finding an approach everyone likes is practically impossible, but Just Some Theatre cover a couple of bases with The Doppel Gang, and do it well. I do feel that to fully appreciate this particular play you need to know and enjoy the Marx Brothers’ work (I was slightly in the dark at times during Act 2, if I’m totally honest), but nonetheless this is clearly a talented company with exciting times ahead.
The Doppel Gang is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 11th February.