Last of the Duty Free King’s Theatre

Thirty years ago, Duty Free was a highly successful comedy series set in Spanish resort hotel (due to budgetary constraints, Leeds stood in for the Costas. I can only assume Yorkshire must have had better weather in those days).

But for all the millions who watched the show, it somehow passed me by, so I was coming to it with no fond memories. For any of you who missed it too, the back story is of two couples, one working class Yorkshire, the other middle class home counties, who meet in a Spanish hotel. An attraction between Yorkshire husband David (Keith Barron) and middle class wife Linda (played by Carol Royle in this revival) leads to various situations in the Whitehall farce tradition as they repeatedly try, and fail, to consummate their illicit relationship.
Their affair is doomed to never get off the ground – after all this was a peak viewing TV show in 1984, and there had, I suspect, to be a moral resolution each week, and certainly no adultery.

So what has changed in 2014? Not a lot. Three of the original cast – Keith Barron, Gwen Taylor and Neil Stacy are still David, Amy and Robert, with Linda the love interest and Carlos the waiter played by newcomers. The cast has expanded by the addition of a honeymoon couple played By James Barron, Keith’s son, and Maxine Gregory.

It could be that not a lot has changed script-wise either. Much of the humour is very dated, and what there is of a more modern nature consists of little but a leaden joke involving mobile phones: “Reception’s so good you could be standing right behind me!” “I am!”

But what makes this a show worth seeing is the quality of the cast. Of the quartet, Stacy, Royle and Barron make more of a weak script than you would believe possible; Keith Barron in particular effortlessly glides through his role as a man who is very much married, but wants some icing on his cake. But star of the show by a long way is Gwen Taylor. It would have been easy to stereotype Amy as a shrewish wife, always putting her husband down and giving him cause to wander. But her performance reveals her underlying love for this infuriating man, and her comic timing and delivery of her lines provide most of the chuckles, and makes you wish that she had a script by the likes of Noel Coward to work with rather than the outdated and occasionally slightly unsavoury offering here.

Having just written that, it occurred to me that Julie Godfrey’s excellent set reminded me of the recent production of Coward’s Private Lives, a show that while it, too contains the odd line that today’s audiences find shocking, remains both pertinent and humorous.

To sum up, if you enjoyed Duty Free on TV, you’ll enjoy this. It won’t bring a new audience to theatres, but then that never was the intention.

Jim Welsh