Cranleigh has some pedigree in producing playwrights, with OCs Al Smith and Patrick Marber still active. It is a new departure for a current pupil to produce a play and Adam van Schaik’s ‘The Rum Doodlers’ shows precocious talent at work. The play itself has fine precedents, certainly channelling not only the madcap whimsy and physical humour of the Pythons and the Mighty Boosh, but also the literacy which gives the high farce a keener edge. The play takes its cue from ‘The Ascent of Rum Doodle’, the parody of mountaineering expeditions penned by W. E. Bowman in 1956: “to climb Mont Blanc by the Grépon route is one thing; to climb Rum Doodle is, as Totter once said, quite another.”
Van Schaik lead from the front as chief expeditionist Bernard, a bureaucrat forced to his horror to take to the field, having assembled a team of highly qualified experts to make their way to the North Pole. Despite his houndstooth attire, deer-stalker hat and his helpful mantra (“to walk a mile is one thing, to walk more than a mile is quite another”), from the outset Bernard looks hopelessly out of his depth. And so he proves to be; yet despite the facial contortions provoked in him by each unfolding disaster, Bernard nonetheless maintains a certain camp, stiff-upper-lipped dignity.
So too does the philologist and linguist Mumble, whose inarticulacy is played as part stammer and part deference by Alex Jeffries, whose quieter comedic sense counterbalanced some of the more extreme characters on show.
None is more extreme than Will Yeeles’ survival expert, Paine Bloodaxe. As a Viking clad in very short shorts, possessing Brain Blessed’s lack of an ‘indoor voice’, Yeeles summons up scene-stealing fury and may still be the most competent member of all the expedition, having been to places “so cold the ice froze – again”. He is certainly more trustworthy than Tom Going’s slippery Guess, a louche sybarite with his eyes on the expedition’s funds. And as threatening as Bloodaxe seems, the sneezes which afflict Kimi Zoet’s Dr Shingles are more violent still. A walking petri dish of pathogens with a bad case of polar flu, her only notable medical skill is in hilariously self-administering anaesthetic gas.
Perhaps the most impressively bonkers performance of the evening came from Kit Rowcliffe as the expedition’s psychiatrist Dr Bedlamite. “Here to help” with two hats and apparently two minds, Rowcliffe had Bedlamite swapping from between American and English in a superficial schizophrenia that masks his true self: a woefully unsuccessful and strangely sympathetic serial killer; “We’re all a little mad, aren’t we?” he implores.
Certainly there is not much evidence to the contrary. The expedition party begins to look almost sane when negotiating with sub-human British Rail porters (admirably given voice, or rather grunts and squeaks, by Ben Foster and Charlie Hibbert). The inevitable failure of the train travel leads to a bus journey with that sums of all horrors, the Butlins Rep, and Maddy Lock’s rictus grin shone with a psychopathic glee that was genuinely frightening.
The expedition may be most ill-fated trip since Werner Herzog’s conquistadores wandered through the Amazon in ‘Aguerro: the Wrath of God’. No one gets out of the UK except Ben Yorke’s absentee guide, who can barely navigate his own satellite phone and is ferried to the pole by rail porters. But whether Bernard’s final vision is of the Aurorea Borealis or the Blackpool Illuminations, the evening finished with a true sense of accomplishment. To perform a play is one thing, to write and co-direct one is quite another. Adam van Schaik’s invention, realised by the whole cast with the assistance of James Copp and the technical expertise of Mark Jenkins’ team, was a gloriously fun spectacle of ‘altitude-induced insanity’ which fully deserved the raucous adulation of the crowd.