“Duck Gutters,” a fun new farce from the University of Manchester Drama Society, is written by Max Scott and it is currently playing at the Space Triplex. It is Oswald’s (Rory Greenwood) twenty-first birthday and he is on the brink of inheriting his father’s shoe-and-slipper empire, the second biggest this side of Bulgaria. Yet he has lately received the intelligence that he is the purchaser of a cursed artwork. The eponymous Duck Gutters, a recent and highly expensive acquisition, was in fact painted by a mass murderer. The reported curse has all the hallmarks of being a self-fulfilling prophesy, since it is driving Oswald to increasingly distracted and erratic behaviour. Unless he can get it together, the impending corporate handover will be jeopardised and Oswald’s vast inheritance will be lost.
This farce does not make any energetic stretches, with most of its plot involving Oswald being made to ingest different hallucinogenic and mood-enhancing drugs without his knowledge. Moreover, the story only ever gets lazier. After so much time apparently struggling in its straightjacket, the play reveals a hand that was always free and it lifts itself off its own hook.
“Duck Gutters” is nonetheless powered by the freshness of its performances. Greenwood’s Oswald is a bravura multi-flavoured cocktail of Mr Bean (his face), Edmund Blackadder (his cantankerous dialogue), and that timeless Wodehousian upper-class twit (his character). The chief villain, himself an Edmund (Alex Stevens), is rendered ten times more sinister because he is dressed like Nigel Farage, in pinstripes and an ersatz school tie. Is he really the young Nigel or, even more sinisterly, is he a young man who thinks that it is somehow debonair to dress like Farage? Whilst the female characters are mostly passive and given less leeway to be silly, Scarlett Spicer is still very funny as Oswald’s cocaine-flustered sister Elizabeth.
But we must discuss the painting!
Which came first, the painting or the play? If it was the latter, then the arduous challenge that has been set for the painting is that it has to look creepy, as though it would be plausibly cursed, as well as ludicrously avant-garde. In addition, it has to live up to a title that sounds like that of a B-side from Trout Mask Replica. By far the most generous aspect of “Duck Gutters” is that it has located a painting so astonishingly bad that surpasses all of these requirements. From where did they find such a gloriously hideous object?
They can’t have made it themselves – you would need to be a genius to create something this bad. I can picture someone from this production discovering the painting in a mysterious antique store and, when they returned to try to find the store again, there would be no trace of it. “No, there hasn’t been a shop here since the last one closed in 1866, my friend.”
In truth, the rather insubstantial farce within this play is reinforced by moments of potent hallucinogenic weirdness. At one point in the story, Elizabeth is nonsensically overwrought about receiving a photo of the murderer Raoul Moat’s penis on her phone; next, the gang are contemplating a trailblazing work of art that comprises two dog testicles in a jar. What can it possibly all mean? It is as though a mocking unseen hand has drawn a cock and balls on the surface of the story.