Daily Telegraph - September 3rd, 2003
A journeyman of genius
There are some people who can’t stick farce at any price, and in theory, at least, I have some sympathy for them. As Joe Orton realised, farce is the cruellest of theatrical forms, reducing people to mere cogs in an insanely logical machine for making an audience laugh. Subtlety and sensitivity are out of the question.
Yet some of my happiest evenings have been spent watching grown men with their trousers round their ankles chasing scantily clad bimbos. And the greatest of those evenings have been spent watching the work of Ray Cooney.
Cooney is perhaps the most undervalued dramatist working in Britain today. He has neither the French snob appeal of Feydeau nor the intellectual credentials of Michael Frayn. He is an unashamed journeyman – but a journeyman of genius.
As merely technical accomplishments, his best farces are a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. But there are other reasons for valuing Cooney. He continues the tradition of unashamedly popular (if critically undervalued) commercial theatre, and he retains links with the great and increasingly endangered heritage of British variety.
CAUGHT IN THE NET is a sequel to Cooney’s huge Eighties hit, RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, and it is even funnier than its predecessor. Unlike most farces, Cooney doesn’t have to spend the first act in laborious exposition. We already know that the hero, John Smith, is a bigamous taxi driver with one wife in Wimbledon and another in Streatham.
And the farcical action goes into overdrive from the start, as his teenage daughter by one marriage and his teenage son by the other discover each other on the internet and seem intent on starting a fine romance, little suspecting that they share the same dad.
Cooney borrows a trick from Ayckbourn, with the action (which he also directs) taking place simultaneously in both of John Smith’s neat suburban homes, represented by a single set consisting mostly of doors. The preposterously complex precision of the plotting is superb.
Robert Daws reveals himself as a natural farceur as the bigamous cabbie, rightly realising that a farce is far from funny for those caught up in it. His desperation as he tries to prevent his wives and children from discovering his terrible secret is a joy to behold, his whole body becoming drenched in sweat and his actions, and his lies, become even more outrageous.
Better still are the performances from two of our finest and most cherishable comedians, Russ Abbot and Eric Sykes. As Smith’s lodger, Abbot is in vintage form, miraculously combining the zany amiability of Tommy Cooper with the raging distraction of Leonard Rossiter. Just the sight of his huge chin and gangling frame makes you smile, but by the time he has invented a wholly fictitious family of lunatics, and appears to be caught in flagrante with a 16-year-old boy, you are in comic heaven.
Eric Sykes, now deaf, virtually blind and in his late seventies, is nothing short of a phenomenon as Abbot’s bonkers dad. He totters around madly on his Zimmer frame, fondly imagines (as in SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER) that a private house is actually a hotel, and performs spectacular feats of physical comedy which would gravely endanger the health of a fully sighted man half his age.
What you see here is comic brilliance matched with reckless courage, and Sykes deserves a knighthood if not a VC. Never has an old trouper trouped so valiantly.
The show is also heroically politically incorrect, with jokes about blindness, disability, senility, sudden death, funny foreigners and homosexuals piled one on top of the other with breathtaking disregard to the pieties of our age. It’s sheer joy from beginning to end.