Three times more coffee pots than you needed. Your jacket on inside out. Anti-depressants muddled with anti-histamines. Your scandal-hunting parliamentary enemy stalking the corridors. Your mistress’s husband haunting reception. Life at this politician-infested hotel is a bedroom farce of minor and major hazards treated alike, and piled on like so many overstuffed scatter cushions. And just when you start to get comfy, Ray Cooney’s 1984 play throws you another exhausting twist in which to tangle.
Ray Cooney was behind Run For Your Wife: a thoroughly savaged cinematic flop despite the massed talents of over 80 veterans of UK television and cinema. But even at the age of 81, his will hasn’t weakened to throw something strong at audiences’ changing tastes. He’s survived decades of minor humiliations at the hands of household objects as a writer and director of hit Whitehall farces. Here, he plays a doddery old waiter who’s lost his grip on numbers, bringing ever-growing multiples of coffees to an unappreciative parliamentary audience.
Richard Willey – if the name doesn’t raise a smile, this might not be the show for you – is a government minister sharing a hotel room with his wife Pamela. He’s determined not to let that stop him from having an affair with Margaret Thatcher’s sexy secretary Jennifer, especially since she’s had the relative good sense to pack her husband off on a skiing holiday. Complications ensue. Willey entrusts his aide George Pigden with making all the sordid arrangements, but his bungling ensures that Pamela avoids Evita in favour of a more burlesque kind of performance – Josefina Gabrielle is a joyfully sensual harpy in a net nightie, chasing after George for some of the fun her husband keeps missing out on. Meanwhile, Michael Praed as Richard blunders about with Boy’s Own hero charm; all bluff naivety, he’s as untroubled by guilt at his actions as a trigger-happy Victorian adventurer.
Cooney’s uncertain plotting means that these complications, through the law of averages, actually end up being resolved at several points in the narrative – including, most agonisingly, just before the interval. Messing things up again means making characters act in dazzlingly implausible ways, like inventing a gay lover who’s a Foreign Office teaboy, or instructing a confused, jealous, and incomprehensibly compliant husband to take off his clothes and get into bed. But that’s as far as the script gets into tangles between the sheets; oddly sexless, there’s nothing here to get even the most faded pulse going. The closest it gets is jokes about bath-time back-scrubbing; there’s a vacancy for edgier wordplay.
Like train-spotting, or model villages, this school of trouser-splitting, prat-falling comedy is such a time-worn part of British life it would be a shame if it wasn’t going on somewhere. But it’s easy to lose patience with it, especially when it’s being mildly offensive; scantily-clad, ditzy Spanish stereotype Maria is cut from far flimsier cloth than the more loveably distasteful Manuel of Fawlty Towers, and other racist and homophobic jokes should have been snipped out altogether.
Cooney’s direction is sharp, and the pace is admirably relentless. But however successful his play was on its original West End run, it’s hard to whole-heartedly applaud a play that ends in falters and trips; the characters simply throw up their hands and admit they’ll never make the kind of breathless photo-finish that marks out a really satisfying farce. The Menier’s characteristically gorgeous production values under Julie Godfrey’s design ensure that this production has all the trappings of a treat; and for the right audience it might be. For anyone who hasn’t acquired a taste for classic farce, though, it’s somewhere between a pickled egg and curate’s egg; good in parts, but hard to swallow.