by Ray Cooney
This play is a farce written by Ray Cooney, one of our most prolific and funniest creators of this kind of comedy. It premiered at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley in 1994, followed by a successful two year run in the West End. It was directed by the author who also played the main role, Henry Perkins. It has been made into a film and presented worldwide. My last review of your company’s work was of a play written by Ray’s son, Michael so, incidentally, we have first-hand experience of a family skill, but also first-hand evidence of Dukinfield’s skill at presenting top quality theatrical comedy of this nature. It is far from easy, requiring as it does important team playing, pace, timing, complete reacting to a series of ludicrous situations cast find themselves involved in, whilst totally at ease with oneself and enjoying the experience. So there is “a feather in your caps” almost before I start my review.
As it is his birthday, Henry Perkins has left work and is going home on the underground, looking forward to his birthday dinner, for which he and his wife, Jean, have invited some old friends, Vic and Betty Johnson to share with them. Unfortunately, when getting off the tube train, he picks up the wrong briefcase. Upon opening the briefcase to get out his scarf and gloves, he realises what he has done. Popping into a pub, he uses one of the booths in the gents, to inspect the contents and finds £73,500 in used £50 notes. What he doesn’t realise is that a “bent copper” called Davenport has noticed his suspicious behaviour and followed him into the pub, jumping to the wrong conclusions. By the time he reaches home, he has planned to pack a suitcase and skedaddle to Barcelona with his wife and the money, leaving his old life behind. As it is Friday he knows that whoever has his briefcase will take at least till Monday morning to find out what happened, so, as the money is obviously criminal, they will be long gone by then, with no bad conscience, certainly from his point of view. And this is where the story really starts!
The set was well designed taking into consideration that comings and goings are fairly continuous by all members of the cast at one time or another throughout. Front door – off stage L, with door to downstairs SL (kitchen?), door SR, sitting room and USC to upstairs. All entrances/exits were used but were so well positioned that the frequent movements required on stage were in no way cramped or restricted and furniture (settee and easy chair mainly) were in keeping with the decor and in no way inhibited movement.
In farce, it occasionally takes the audience some time to work out who is who, and their place in the overall plot. However, John Dewsnap, the director, had placed and developed his cast so well that the audience was into the plot straightaway. He had some very good actors to work with, and they attacked the comedy inherent in the story. There were some very good physical set pieces, e.g., the two or three actors on the settee covered waist down by a large blanket, which must have been rehearsed in detail. It brought the house down each time it was set up, so well done, the various cast involved each time. I think I mentioned last time that I didn’t feel I was watching actors at work. In some inexplicable way I felt almost involved in the extraordinary situation that was happening to these unfortunate people. This was due entirely to your cast’s total belief in their characters, and, therefore, the veracity of the cover-ups, and the stories and explanations they had to contribute. John had obviously worked hard with his actors on the focus of the production, and the amount of energy injected each individual performance was great. Overall pace was very good and the production kept moving realistically and hilariously throughout. The enthusiastic reactions of your audience must have given you much satisfaction as you became aware of it. Full marks for a complete absence of any trampling through laughs, thus enabling the audience’s complete enjoyment.
The part of Henry Perkins was in the capable, experienced hands of Andrew Cochrane, who had to deal with a wife who didn’t want to go and live in Barcelona, and who also thought that they would be committing a crime. How he dealt with all that was metaphorically thrown at him by a cast who saw all the pitfalls and none of the advantages of falling in with his plans, plus Betty, who felt keen to go when her husband wouldn’t, and neither would Jean, so swapping partners would be a solution. The fact that he was able to rise above it all, provide answers to all problems, pay off a crooked policeman, explain to the other policeman how that person had been able to find his lost briefcase, and re-tell his version of what is supposed to have happened, and what he wanted to do next, was an example of an actor at the top of his game. Quick thinking, never at a loss for words, steadfast in his characterisation, relentless in determination and whose comedy timing was an object lesson for actors who find themselves in similar situations. Well done!
His wife, Jean, was played by Shelley Ridler who also shone with a remarkable all round performance. She was everything to everybody and was required to be organised, worried, upset, full of life, at times hilarious, spot on with her timing and this season’s realistically gradual drunk. She had given up alcohol some time ago, but soon after Henry came home with his news, she began again, and sedately kept it up for the remainder of the play The performance of getting a coat over her night clothes was hilarious – just how she got it back to front with the arms in the wrong sleeves brought the house down. Congratulations on a superb performance.
Ken Stones was Davenport, the “bent copper.” and he played the scheming, conniving policeman with great skill. Involved in most situations he played various machinations with enthusiasm and a degree of realism, because he knew basically what he was after. With great mental energy he sailed through his scenes with Henry with panache and invention, which were appreciated by the audience. Well played.
Betty Johnson was played by Denise Bradbury, and I believe this was her first appearance for your company. She showed us a happy smiling face and had great projection so each word was crystal clear. Just when we were beginning to wonder how this incredible mix-up could be sorted out to everybody’s satisfaction, her solution of going with Henry added fresh complications. Her participation in the situation was joyous and she injected good stage presence. Well done.
Vic Johnson, Betty’s husband and Henry’s mate, was played by Paul Whitworth. He made much of his character and his chats and discussions with Henry spoke volumes. He had a smooth convincing charm and used his expressive face to register reaction to the crisis which seemed to be developing all round. Always there when needed, he didn’t appear too much in favour of Betty’s proposed solution to the Barcelona business. A pleasurable, dependable performance which added strength and enjoyment to the production.
Stuart Harris-Heffer, played Bill, the taxi-driver booked to go to the airport to get Henry and Jean to Barcelona. This was another pleasing characterisation. He had an excellent feel for pace – important in this role because he is frequently popping in and out of doors on various errands. It is a fragmented role and yet he did it with infectious charm, genuine willingness and a lovely smile. He wore an almost benign air to accomplish all the instructions ordered of him, and he contributed much to the general comedy.
Dave Morris is the genuine policeman, and he doesn’t know Davenport, neither personally nor by name. He has come to tell Jean that Henry’s body has been fished out of the river, therefore further complicating the issues as Henry is there alive and well. He takes charge of the proceedings and plays the policeman that nobody can argue with in the most disciplined and impressive way. He obviously enjoyed the role and his command and demeanour throughout was very well handled, showing us that realism is possible when control and experience is brought to bear. When the doorbell finally rang and “Mr Brerfcurse” entered to claim his money, Dave’s evening had reached a successful conclusion. They say there are no small parts in theatre – true because all are important. John Mercer certainly got all it was possible to get out of “Mr Brerfcurse” and certainly looked as if he was enjoying it. Well played.
Direction was in the hands of John Dewsnap, and he had obviously instilled in his cast the importance of pace in a play such as this, not just in the delivery of lines, but in entrances, exits and all their business. They were so believably playing as a team, bearing in mind all that description means. John had a challenge on his hands with this play but he masterminded it with strong, sympathetic direction; skill in arranging set pieces; helping a cast with their characters, and they had all so obviously enjoyed it, as so did we.
Congratulations to all involved in any way and thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality. As I said last time – it was like coming home.