Blackwood Players Inc
Blackwood 21 (Blackwood Memorial Hall)
Until 20 Nov 2021

Review by Holden Ward

When it comes to farce comedy productions, amateur theatre companies in Adelaide tend to gravitate towards tried and true favourites by playwrights such as Neil Simon, Marc Camoletti or Alan Ayckbourn.

However, in choosing Charles Hawtry’s “The Private Secretary”, experienced Director Damien White is going for something more ambitious. Originally written in 1883, the farcical play was adapted from a German novel, “Der Bibliothekar”, and different versions of the play have been highly praised and harshly criticized over the years. White is a fan of the play and perhaps as a nod to his ancestral links to Charles Hawtry, he has sought to update the script and bring this “forgotten gem” back to the stage.

“The Private Secretary” is presented as a Three Act Play. Much like any farce comedy, one must be willing to suspend disbelief, but particularly here, as the premise is quite incomprehensible, namely a young man, Douglas Cattermole “attempts to sow his wild oats to please his aunt whom he has never met.”

The dialogue is peppered with occasional remarks to the audience however, what would have been believable character motivations, such as the pursuit of sexual conquests or money for bills, were underdone. Additionally, the mistaken identity comedy could have worked much better had the motivations and distinct characterisations for Douglas Cattermole and Mr Spalding been more apparent.

Despite these limitations, the ensemble cast are able to deliver an entertaining evening. Blackwood Players offer true community theatre, accommodating experienced and first-time actors in this competent production.

Rebecca Gardner as Mrs Cattermole (the aunt) was outstanding, commanding a presence from her opening scene and truly kicked this play into gear. When pitted against the weaker, foolish characters of her nephew and Mr Spalding, Gardner’s tight, assertive performance made for some very humorous interactions.

Towards the end of Act One, the comedic rhythm seemed to find its feet and even the line “call me a cab….you’re a cab” elicited warm laughter from the audience.

Understandably, some of the newer actors experienced occasional opening night jitters, but any glitch was handled smoothly. The occasional rushed or quiet dialogue, an accidental music interlude and even a broken chair did not deter the performers, and these things can be resolved in future shows.

Interestingly, White has adapted the script to place the play in the 1960s and to “enable a more equal split of gender roles”. Given the strong performances of most of the female cast, and the weaker nature of the male characters, the gender balance achieved may be reflective of more contemporary times.

Aside from this, the historic 60s vibe was adequately portrayed. Full marks must go to the cast and team involved with the authentic costumes, and to Damien White and Production Manager Michelle MacLean for the functional set design and furnishings.
The pre-show and interlude music also served to take the audience back to the 60s.

The large stage was well lit, but perhaps could have been dimmed more in Act Three, to reflect a later time from Act Two.

“The Private Secretary” was well received by the audience and if you are able to sit with the absurd farcical premise and allow the play to unfold, you will be rewarded with some strong performances, funny moments and the satisfaction of seeing a forgotten gem brought to life.