Out Of Order

Ray Cooney

Tom O'Connell Productions

Malvern Theatres

From 08 May 2017 to 13 May 2017

Review by G.D.Mills

Out of Order is a good, old fashioned Whitehall farce and it doesn’t take long to get going.

Within five minutes, the main ingredients have been thrown into the mix. We have the hotel room, the illicit liaison between a junior minister named Willey and his scantily clad mistress, a blundering waiter, a supercilious hotel manager—oh yes, and a dead body, hanging halfway into the room, the sash window having, apparently, fallen guillotine-like on his head.

What’s a minister to do? Hide the body, of course. Best not to attract press attention to such marital indiscretion—Theresa May would be most displeased! His bumbling aid George Pidgen (played by Shaun Williamson of Eastenders fame), a prudish mummy’s boy, turns up to help but events spiral further out of control.

Mr Willey’s wife (Sue Holderness) also rocks up, as does his mistress’s husband, followed shortly by Pidgen’s mother’s nurse. The dead body in a farce, meanwhile, much like Chekhov’s gun, follows a certain rule of inevitability: I’ll leave you to work out what that is.  

Ray Cooney has been in the business for 70 years, and writing farce for 30 of those. It isn’t so much that Cooney follows the farce rule book to a T, more than he’s partially responsible for writing it.

Mr Willey’s political reputation grows ever more precarious as the characters, in ever more unlikely configurations, jump in and out of wheelchairs, cupboards, windows and hotel rooms. George Pidgen gurns and mugs and frequently loses his powers of speech. When he nods, frequently and vigorously as he does, one can’t help but think of Churchill’s dog in that advert. Williamson has carved a career playing working class buffoons, now he gets to play a buffoon with an Oxbridge degree.

David Warwick plays a marvelously dextrous, surprisingly amusing dead body, whether he’s been hung up on a coat rack, being manipulated like a ventriloquist’s dummy or merely being dropped into a heap on the floor.

Arthur Bostrom, (the policeman in Allo ‘Allo!) presents us with a fruity and prim hotel manager while James Holmes gives us a grubby weasel of a waiter. Jules Brown, even if he is hulking in stature, plays a crushed and querelous cuckold and seems often to be found in the kneeling position, grovelling perilously at crotch level. Jeffrey Harmer offers us a sturdy Willey (tehehe), a scheming, but not particularly successful, Conservative who will stop at nothing to protect his position.

Out of Order is clever in a cartoonish way and the physical humour has been deftly choreographed. The play might have been more accurately called Bang Out of Order, given the salacious goings on and the sash window’s habit of rendering the characters unconscious.

If there is a weakness, it’s that it all feels a little outdated. Although some of the dialogue has been altered to reflect the current political scene, it is of the ‘insert here’ kind and isn’t particularly cutting or witty (“one more scandal for the Conservatives and we’ll fall below UKIP!”).

The play is in fact almost thirty years old and seems old-fashioned in subtle ways, like a total reliance for external communication on the hotel room telephone (in the absence of mobile 'phones) and a plot that hinges heavily on a decrepit sash window (they still exist, sure, but probably not in an exclusive W1 hotel).

And the characters themselves seem not to inhabit the 21st century. The matronly Nurse Gladys Foster (Elizabeth Elvin), for example, and even Willey’s ingenuous mistress (Susie Amy) might have walked out of a Carry On film, while Willey and Pidgen have clearly bypassed the era of spin.

And whilst I’m being picky about verisimilitude, why doesn’t Big Ben, so clear in the background, ever chime?

But farce is, by and large, timeless, so it doesn’t matter so much. In short, if you like a bit of old fashioned theatrical fun there’s nothing out of order with this production at all.