A Farce by Ray Cooney
25 May - 03 July 2009
I have been fortunate enough to be involved with 10 Cooney plays over the years. It all started in 1967, when, as a young ASM in weekly rep, I was given the role in One For the Pot of the old man Hardcastle (typical weekly rep casting: give the part no-one else wants to the lowest person in the food chain). Fast-forward nearly 20 years, and I finally met Ray for the first time when he was auditioning for his adaptation of An Italian Straw Hat in the West End, produced by his “Theatre of Comedy” company. I got the part! And since then I count myself extremely lucky to have become a member of the extended Cooney working family.

I was in at the birth of Out of Order, when under its original title: Whose Wife Is It Anyway? it had a rehearsed Sunday reading; then, rewritten, a 3-week run tryout at a commutable out-of-London theatre (in this case the Thorndike at Leatherhead); then eventually, and after a ream of rewrites, additions (the character of Gladys didn’t appear in the first version) and subtractions (the ending is substantially different) we opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1990. It played to great success for 9 months with Sir Donald Sinden & Michael Williams in the leading roles, and yours truly playing The Body.

Of course in those days we had a Tory government with Mrs Thatcher as PM, and her formidable reputation offstage gave a great motivation onstage to our main character. It’s been said by some commentators that Mrs T ran her cabinet so effectively because they were all ex-public schoolboys and had fearful memories of being intimidated by their school matron? Certainly the relationship between Willey & Pigden has its origins in school bullying. And it’s peculiarly British: those social mores & class distinctions don’t exist in quite the same manner in other societies. The French version of farce, as written by Feydeau for instance, is substantially different: it’s more about sex. In spite of appearances, British farce isn’t.

It’s rather comforting to know the play has survived longer than the political mandarins it spoofed. Each time there has been a change in leadership or party, the play has chameleon-like changed its colour and continued its success. It seems not to matter whether Mrs T, or “little Johnny Major”, or “little Tony” were in power. Why? Because all politicians are alike fortunately; certainly as far as comedy and its loyal audiences are concerned.

Farce is hard work for its main protagonists (Donald said he’d rather play King Lear any day: it’s much easier). The writing style is formulaic & precise; the vocabulary seems deceptively simple (Ray once said that if he used a word with more than 3 syllables then something was wrong) but there are rhythms in the lines, which an actor departs from at his peril. The play has been crafted by the Master of the art, and not every actor enjoys the apparent straitjacket that he thinks it puts him in. It takes a special one to take it on and make it work, which is why you find the same names occurring in the cast lists of Ray’s productions: once you’ve found actors who can do it you hang on to them.

I have come to the conclusion that Ray’s works are actually modern morality plays. Men (never women, who are far too sensible to engage in the outrageous & convoluted lies exhibited here) attempt to indulge themselves in reprehensible behaviour, but are wrong-footed along the way by awkward & threatening circumstances, and usually never get to taste the forbidden fruits (and if they do, then their come-uppance is not very far away).

But that reflects Ray himself, his view on life & the way he lives it … a family man, generous to a fault, honest, loyal to his friends. And a complete workaholic! Don’t repeat this, but he’ll turn 77 during the run of this play, and he’s still at it, currently rewriting, reworking & generally worrying at his musical Time’s Up. He’ll never stop. Ray & Out of Order have been good to me. It gave me a great time in the West End, my first opportunity to direct as a “grownup”, took me to Miami & New York, and via one or two other routes has brought me back to Vienna. What more could one ask?

David Warwick