I always book Tempo shows with some trepidation; yes, I want to see all the theatre I can, but the quality can be pretty variable. Panic Stations wasn't the show to change my mind.
The late Derek Benfield was something of a poor man's Ray Cooney, and I have to think that this is not one of his stronger scripts. It's also a sequel to a couple of his other works, Wild Goose Chase and Post Horn Gallop, so a number of glaring flaws may be put down to an assumed familiarity with most of the characters (and possibly a reluctance to leave well enough alone). Recycled are the central character Chester Dreadnought (Bill Kolentsis), his wife Patricia (hard won by Chester in the previous episodes, played by Rina Onorato), her parents the disapproving Lady Elrood (Marian FitzGerald) and trigger-happy lunatic Lord Elrood (Kim Wilson), and an equally lunatic quasi-archaeologist Miss Partridge (Melita Caulfield). Newer arrivals are the help from the village, Mr & Mrs Abel Bounty (Garry Robinson and Cheryl Browne), Carol the dolly-bird (Salli Willings), and a nutter of a sergeant from the local garrison (Bruce Vincent). The character of Miss Partridge in particular seems completely superfluous, so presumably Benfield felt she had some sort of following that warranted cramming her into the story regardless of fit (a shame as Melita Caulfield is one of the better performers in the cast).
The plot is paper-thin: Chester has bought a house in the country (Dorset?), and has arrived to continue the unpacking begun by local yokel Abel Bounty, when he discovers Carol the dolly-bird in residence, apparently under the impression that he has promised to run away with her. Carol is, of course (or as written ought to be) significantly underclad, her clothes having got wet in the rain. (She took off her dress in the bedroom. We hear about this a lot). Chester then discovers that the house was such a bargain because it's 300 yards from the local garrison's firing range. He doesn't want to explain either situation to the wife, let alone her parents, but presto, who should arrive early, unexpected by no one except Chester? Throw in the mad Miss Partridge who is convinced the house is steeped in history (seriously, there was never any point to Miss Partridge whatsoever) and a sergeant who has filled the house with dynamite as a training exercise (because that can happen), and hilarity ensues.
Even a good farce has to be directed at a cracking pace to work, because the plots do tend to require that the audience not have recovered from the last gag before the next one sets in, so that disbelief remains suspended, or at least, if it does sag a bit the audience is laughing too hard to care. The idea is that whenever Chester sticks his foot in his mouth he can't explain himself before his wife or the dolly-bird careen off under false impressions, and the whole debacle snowballs, but unfortunately in this rather leisurely production Chester has ample time to explain himself. This is sometimes painful to watch given that the threadbare script offers little enough to begin with - even the barely double entendres are few and far between, and chiefly involve Mr & Mrs Bounty's cleaning efforts ("We started off in the bedroom and carried on all morning") and Mr Bounty having to resort to cooking on a camp stove ("He's fallen back on his Primus"), repeated ad nauseam, apparently in the fond belief that if it's funny the first time (a moot point in itself) it's ten times as funny the tenth time.
The recycled Mousetrap set is serviceable enough, but given the many references to the mess of unpacking, a few more cardboard boxes would have added verisimilitude at almost zero cost. (But nice to see Matt Broadloom on the boards again, as it were). The sound effects by Tony Galliford and Nick Fuller were a highlight, though, with an entirely convincing array of heavy artillery noises frightening the bejesus out of us at frequent intervals.
Costuming was a mixed bag. Most was straightforward, but the choice to put Miss Partridge in an academic type of outfit, rather than something more like this, badly misrepresented the character; while Carol the dolly-bird was dressed and made up like a librarian for most of the show. I uncharitably thought this might have been due to lack of casting options until part-way through the second act when Salli Willings made a revelatory appearance in fishnets and a skin-tight sparkly purple number that displayed a very creditable figure (though the librarian hair and makeup remained and she seemed most uncomfortable in spike heels). If we'd seen a bit of that in Act 1, the whole premise would have seemed a great deal more likely.
Performances were uneven in quality. Melita Caulfield did well with her entirely superfluous part; Kim Wilson channelled Robert Hardy nicely in another pretty unrewarding role, and Garry Robinson and Cheryl Browne were a treat as Mr & Mrs Bounty, with good consistent south-west accents. Bruce Vincent was appropriately shouty, but without a suitably energised response from Bill Kolentsis' Chester his performance became uncomfortable to watch. The acting of some in the cast was so self-conscious I could practically see them thinking through the stage directions: "Now I'm supposed to take two steps left - [step, step] - then look cross [put on cross expression] and say "Really!"- ["Really!"]". The physical acting was disappointing, given the opportunities for slapstick that farce presents - Chester and Patricia wrestling for a rifle were particularly unconvincing - and apart from the mandatory trouser-losing incident, the opportunities went sadly unrealised.
This is not a good play, and even seasoned professionals would have to work pretty hard to get many laughs from it. Points to Tempo for trying, but it needed much pacier direction and more dynamic performances to disguise the manifold flaws in the script. I'm sorry I missed their recent An Inspector Calls; I think it would have been a better fit.