Daily Telegraph - August 26th, 2005


Cogs in a laughter machine

RAY Cooney has long struck me as the most seriously underrated dramatist in Britain. Not by audiences to be sure, for he has been writing popular hits since the early '60s, but by cognoscenti and critics, who almost always look down their noses at his crowd-pleasing farces.
There are those poor souls, of course, who can’t stick farce at any price. But even the sternest cultural commisars will admit the worth of Feydeau and Ben Travers while routinely denigrating Cooney.
But he is actually more ingenious than his celebrated predecessors when it comes to the daunting logistical demands of farce. With what he describes as his "twisted algebraic mind", he comes up with plots of staggering complexity, creating apparently artless comic pandemonium through the application of remorseless logic. A Cooney script makes Fermat’s last theorem look like a doddle.
His plays also have something to tell us about the human condition. They catch that feeling we all experience at times of being mere cogs in some infernal machine whose workings we only faintly discern. We keep spinning and spinning, and get absolutely nowhere, fast. The laughter in farce invariably stems from human desperation.
Cooney’s latest piece, Tom, Dick & Harry, written in collaboration with his son, Michael, makes such desperation unusually poignant. Tom Kerwood, a respectable builder, and his wife Linda are a childless couple who yearn for a baby, and today their dreams might just come true. The representative of an adoption agency is coming to call, to judge their suitability as parents. If they can pass the test, a baby will be theirs.
Unfortunately, Tom has two feckless brothers, Dick and Harry, who put several spanners in the works. Dick has just returned from a smuggling trip to France and has unwittingly brought a couple of east European refugees back home in the van, too. Meanwhile, Harry, a hospital porter, wants to help Tom and Linda to buy their rented home at a discount by burying a dismembered cadaver under the conservatory. The discovery of such grisly remains, he argues, will ensure that the asking price falls, dramatically.
All of this, I readily concede, takes some swallowing, but it is worth the effort. For Cooney pere et fils construct a delirious comedy, played out in real time, in which the increasingly demented Tom spins lie after lie to explain why his house contains both odoriferous human remains and a drunken trumpet-playing Kosovan.
As Tom, Joe McGann beautifully captures the glazed panic and sudden mendacious inspirations of a man who finds himself caught up in a nightmare entirely beyond his control. And there is strong support from his real-life brothers, Stephen and Mark McGann, as Tom’s appalling siblings. Mark’s squeaky-voiced Harry, constantly trying to help, only to make matters immeasurably worse, is a particular joy.
There’s excellent work, too, from Louise Jameson as the disapproving old boot from the adoption agency, and Hannah Waterman as the long suffering wife who becomes the chief victim of her husband’s profligate porkies.
This is a highly original consistently inventive farce that depends on neither illicit hanky-panky nor dropped trousers for its humour. At its considerable best, it ranks among Cooney’s finest, and frequently found me physically helpless with laugher.

Charles Spencer