Ray Cooney is probably still Britain’s greatest living farceur. In the 1980s his Run For Your Wife became one of the first West End shows whose duration could be given in geologic ages rather than calendar years. But, well, time passes. Cooney is now almost 82, his direction shows experience but little energy, and his own appearance in the doddery-waiter role of this 1981 play seems calculated to elicit affection in the audience rather than admiration of his stage business.
The world of the play is one in which a junior government minister and his wife don pyjamas and a “naughty nightie” for their respective extra-marital flings one afternoon in adjoining rooms in a Westminster hotel. It is a world in which the mere mention of gayness (to explain away the odd behaviour of the civil servant whom the minister has enlisted to facilitate his tryst) is assumed to raise at least a mild frisson. It is a world in which, above all, the minister’s name is milked for repeated laughs: he is Dickie Willey, MP.
Cooney the playwright structures his farcical activity with precision and enthusiasm: he requires of designer Julie Godfrey a principal set with six entrances (three in each of the adjoining rooms), and makes full use of them all. Cooney the director, however, simply never whips his cast into the kind of het-up pace on which farce depends, with its repeated instances of characters missing each other by just this much.
Michael Praed as Willey in particular remains comparatively languid even when he is supposed to be speeding his face off after necking the wrong kind of pills. Nick Wilton fares rather better as the hapless George Pigden, who is the real hub of all the confusion, but Cooney seems to leave him to his own devices rather than encourage his moments of frenzy. Jeffrey Holland provides systematically rumpled dignity as the hotel manager, and Josefina Gabrielle as Mrs Willey offers enthusiasm but her role serves primarily to show how staid good clean smut was a third of a century ago.
I did not like The Duck House at all as a play when it opened in the West End a few months ago, but its staging could give Cooney an object lesson in the importance of playing matters in top farcical gear.