I have to say it up front: I hate the title of this play. It makes my skin crawl every time I think it or say it or write it. The pairing of ‘cream’ and ‘incest’ brings out all the most disgusting associations of the word ‘cream’ and I absolutely loathe it.
But Benjamin Alborough’s poor old play doesn’t deserve such a violent reaction. This peppy little comedy is both mockery of upper class twits and parody of the genre of mockery of upper class twits, and thus is not out to offend anyone who stands the slightest chance of coming to the Hope Theatre to see it. In fact, such a comically condescending view of the ruling class feels almost sweet, given how actively evil our oligarchs are today. Ah, for the days when one could sincerely think benign stupidity and ignorance were the root of their destruction and greed.
That right there is already more commentary than the play bothers with, which is just fine: we are here for silly laughs at the hands of a very charming four-man ensemble. Alborough’s Wodehouse-meets-Python-meets-2018 pastiche is pitch-perfect, and director Benedict Philipp’s stylized blocking moves with cinematic smoothness and sharp comic timing. Olivia Rose Deane and Francesca Leone’s cardboard cut-out set and props are charming, and perfectly match the comic tone of the piece overall. The plot is only a tissue-thin surface upon which to rest jokes, but the basic outline finds the dazzlingly stupid Eddie Spangler (Alborough) traveling with his loyal butler Jeffrey (Eoin McAndrew) to visit Lord Wiggins (Aidan Cheng), who is torn between loyalty to his father’s colonial aspirations and love of a socialist lass. Eddie and Jeffrey, for entirely self-interested reasons, hope he’ll marry. Meanwhile Wiggins’s brother Biggins (Edward Spence) hopes to claim his brother’s inheritance for himself. What will prevail? Marxism or money? Butler or bluebloods? Biggins or Wiggins? Well, don’t worry too much about it.
The whole thing feels a little bit like an improv sketch that went so well, everyone involved decided it deserved to be stretched out into a play. While definitely funny (and wisely limited to an hour long), the relentless jokes with absolutely no underpinning substance get a little tiring. There’s a well-timed and very fun dance number (choreography by Hector Mitchell-Turner, music by Olivia Rose Deane), but other than that, there’s not a lot of variety in tone or pace, lulling much of the audience into a sort of smiling contentment against which the jokes must fight harder and harder in order to land.
Also there are the homophobic tropes. It’s nothing aggressive, very much the kind of thing you’d expect: oh-ho, these silly, effeminate fops and their boarding school hijinks. But the frequency with which the butt of the joke is men touching, or loving, or liking, or looking like they’d like if they were loved by other men is more than a little jarring. Maybe it’s an inescapable feature of the genre. But that would beg the question of whether this is a genre that then needs to be retired. I think the various strands of mockery are perfectly capable of being separated, the queasy tittering at the idea of gayness weeded out from the stock tropes about upper-class foibles. From the evidence of this play, Alborough definitely seems clever enough to do better.
The way they’ve found is, all in all, good enough. It’s fun! It’s silly! It doesn’t really do anything or say anything, but nor is it trying to. There were hearty chuckles had all ‘round. But my hatred of the title remains the most passion I’m able to muster over it.
Cream Tea and Incest is on at Hope Theatre until 28th April. Book tickets here.