The death of farce is frequently pronounced. But if the genre is dead, nobody told Ray Cooney - or, in any case, he obstinately refused to believe it. During his 50-odd year career, Cooney has churned out hits such as Funny Money, Wife Begins at Forty, Out of Order and, of course, 1983’s oft-produced Run for Your Wife as well as its sequel Caught in the Net. Now Cooney is back in the West End for the 23rd time (though the first time since Caught in the Net in 2001) with his latest, Tom, Dick and Harry, which he’s co-written with his Los Angeles-based screenwriter son Michael.
The play has had a somewhat troubled production history. Originally seen in Windsor in 2003 with a cast that included Bradley Walsh and Joe Pasquale, its expected transfer announcement didn’t materialise until last autumn. Its planned March 2005 opening was then kyboshed by Pasquale’s success on reality television’s I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here; the King of the Jungle apparently deciding there were better ways to capitalise on his newly elevated status.
At Tom Kerwood’s home in south London, he and his wife Linda are nervously preparing for a visit from the adoption agency official who can greenlight their application. With less than an hour to go before she arrives, though, Tom’s layabout brothers, Dick and Harry, prove far more adept at hindering than helping. Dick has brought back 400,000 cigarettes, several crates of brandy and two illegal immigrants from Calais, while Harry has an even more unsavoury delivery from the hospital morgue where he works as an assistant.
And that’s just for starters. As with all good farces, the plot thickens to tar-like consistency with dollops of lies and counter-lies as the protagonist battles to maintain order and hide mounting secrets and complications. In this instance, a Russian mafioso, a first wife named Adriatica, a dead mother-in-law, a bard-inspired TV programme, a wheelbarrow and an easily duped policeman also figure – not to mention the requisite five, frequently slammed doors leading off Douglas Heap’s spacious front room set.
Though a few groan-worthy jokes could be happily buried with the body parts, Cooney’s construction remains faultless, the many disparate strands cleverly tangled and then untangled within two hours. The main problems are not so much with the play as with the production.
The McGann brothers - Joe, Stephen and Mark – as the trio of the title are all likeable enough (and you can hardly question their fraternity!), but you can’t help but feel that their parts were crafted with others in mind. Certainly so with Mark, perhaps the most gifted comically, whose bumbling Harry seems to have swallowed Joe Pasquale’s squeaky voicebox. At this stage, the McGanns also don’t seem particularly at ease with the fast-paced demands of farce – as a result, too many potential belly-laugh moments elicit only chuckles or wry smiles due to lack of speed. This may well improve as the run settles.
Fast or slow, yes, it all feels dated and old-fashioned. And, for those who don’t like farces on principle, Tom, Dick and Harry is not the one to change their minds. For those who do, there’s plenty here to amuse, including some very funny set pieces, though the production itself rarely reaches the heights – or depths – of helpless abandon you may like it to.