Out of Order: Best of British Farce
Farce is never an easy form of theatre to succeed in. Yet Ray Cooney has made it his lifetimes ambition and work to create some of our best loved and well written farces. ‘Out of Order’ is not one of Cooney’s best (even though it won an Laurence Oliver award for Best Comedy 1991) but it certainly contains all the hall marks of a very good and well plotted script which was first performed in 1990.
The play is currently on tour with a cast full of much needed acting experience to take on this daunting artistic comedy task. With doors slamming, characters panicking and chaos attributing, farce is a form of theatre untouched in its comic moments for audience hilarity. Yet it remains hard to explain or even dissect as playwright Michael Frayn (‘Noises Off’) said ‘Anytime anyone tries to explain what farce is they fall on their faces’. What remains surprising is this type of work is seen by many, including Cooney as ‘tragedies’, which need to be performed seriously and according to John Mortimer ‘played at a thousand revolutions a minute’. For that reason, farces are nearly always best played by actors rather than comedians.
Ray Cooney is the master of farce, and much credit should be given to him for keeping the art form well and alive in British theatre for so many years. Having been a regular in the 80’s at the Shaftesbury theatre, then under the control of ‘The Theatre of Comedy’ who regularly produced Cooney’s work, (some of which have made the screen), one appreciates the comic art form on so many levels. What seems so simple and easy to follow is incredibly hard to play and even harder to write.
‘Out of Order’, takes place inside a posh suite in a Westminster Hotel, just opposite Parliament and revolves around accidents caused by a defective sash window which creates confusion and mayhem amongst the cast. Indeed, the window was so beautifully operated and timed the stage hands working the mechanism took a well-deserved window frame bow at the end. The lead character Richard Willey (Andrew Hall) is a junior UK minister in the May government who has booked a suite to have an adulteress affair with a secretary (Susie Amy) in the Corbyn government. The side kick his personal private secretary (Shaun Williamson) is dragged into a team of lies and deceptions to cover the fact, not helped by a wonky window. It is Hall and Williamson that carry much of the plot, ably supported by an enthusiastic bunch of characters namely James Holmes playing an eccentric waiter and Susy Amy showing a pretty face along with solid acting ability.
To play farce well there needs to be an energy and pace between the actors that never stops. On occasions this dipped but not enough to spoil a lovely play brought up to date with references to the current political leaders. The entrance of experienced comedy performers from our screen strengthened the action in the names of Sue Holderness (‘Only Fools & Horses’) and Arthur Bostrom (‘Allo Allo’) each bringing their characters well and truly alive. Much credit needs to be given to David Warwick who played ‘the body’. On paper, not an enthralling roll just laying there, but his helpful disguised movements when picked up from time to time by the cast members were essential to the comedy.
The plot was nicely constructed in typical Cooney style with lie upon lie causing hilarity among the audience and just as it was about to be exposed, another fib arrives to cover the previous. Along the way bits of comedy business supported the script. Yet with all this going on, one has resolve and tie up the ending, which in this particular farce, Cooney has not done as satisfactorily as he has in others. But this did not detract from the genuinely funny moments this play provides. Maybe we enjoy this style of work as an inward escape to our more darker thoughts as former National Theatre Director Peter Hall said ‘Farce allows us to watch the sort of behaviour we could never publicly endorse but which we secretly know we might be capable of’.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.