Running five seasons between 1990 and 1995, and consisting of 44 episodes, the show satirically chronicled the misadventures of the overbearing, snobbish, working class, social climbing Hyacinth Bucket who tormented her good-natured civil servant husband and their small-town neighbors with her pretentiousness. It has become one of staples of American Public Television’s Britcom reruns. A testament to its popularity is subsequent reunion specials, an audio version, and several books.
The role of Hyacinth was indelibly created by the distinguished and award winning British actress, Patricia Routledge. With her distinctive, faux posh, fluty voice, that aped the tones of the upper class and her expressive physicality, she became a memorable television figure.
In 2010, the show’s creator and writer, Roy Clarke adapted it into a play that toured the United Kingdom, with virtually a different cast of characters than the television series. It’s set in the town’s church theater where a tatty 1930’s whodunit murder mystery is being rehearsed. It has Hyacinth barreling around, interacting with all of the other characters from the show, resulting in comic complications.
Incorporating many of the television series’ key elements, this theatrical version is a pleasantly inconsequential retread, and definitely not a masterwork of British stage farce. Due to the play’s imposed unit set’s logistical limitations, one of the crucial routines has been altered with milder results.
“The Bucket residence. The lady of the house speaking…” is the running gag as Hyacinth grandly pronounces Bucket as bouquet, when answering the telephone. Here, she answers a clunky 1990’s portable phone with, “You have reached the personal mobile of Hyacinth Bucket. She herself speaking…”
This hasn’t played London’s West End, and has not been performed in the United States until now. The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s Theatre Fellowship has presented this premiere. The cast of this Actor’s Equity showcase production is made up of polished professional and engaging non-professional performers, many of who are Fellowship members. The overall results for this light-hearted fare are that of high-level community theater.
Isabella Knight takes on the daunting challenge of portraying Hyacinth, and succeeds. Totally different physically than Patricia Routledge, Ms. Knight is smaller in stature and more compact, but still conveys the essence of the character. With her fluid bearing, precise British diction, and skillful comic timing, she is a very effective facsimile.
Kevin Schwab as the recently divorced Mr. Milson offers a grandly animated characterization reminiscent of the work of British stage veterans, Paxton Whitehead and Simon Jones. Wiry and with a forceful comic British accent, his is among the show’s strongest performances.
With charming befuddlement, Suzan Habachy makes the most of her brief appearance as a dithery social arbiter. Josie Lawrence and Jonathan Weirich are virtual visual carbon copies of the television show’s version of Hyacinth’s sister and brother-in-law, and both are appealing. Janet Luhrs as the sympathetic neighbor gives a sweetly stalwart portrayal.
The rest of the cast, Joscelyne Wilmouth, Edward Fagan, Tom Crowfis, Maureen Daly, Margaret Ost, Patricia Yeazell and Richard Fagan, all make their marks in the other roles.
The direction by Johnny Culver assuredly mines all of the farcical potential from the material, including a bit with a tacky dummy representing a murdered butler. The space of the church theater that is the setting for the play itself is very well utilized, with cast members occasionally going through the audience. Culver also plays Emmet, the brother of neighbor Elizabeth, the exasperated chief foil of Hyacinth. It’s an amiably well-played performance, though incongruously devoid of a British accent.
Dawn Kojak’s costume selections are an artful assortment that includes Hyacinth’s various guises. Those are a vibrant flowery dress, and for her roles in the play, an elaborate gown, and an oversized chef’s uniform and sunglasses. All of the other characters are suitably and cleverly clothed.
For fans of the television show this small-scale production could be an enticing minor delight. Those unfamiliar with the source material could enjoy all of the innocuous bounciness on display.
Keeping Up Appearances (through March 15th, 2015)
The Theatre Fellowship
Jones Auditorium at The Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, 7 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit http://www.fapctheatrefellowship.com
Running time: two hours with one intermission