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Ray Cooney: 'People need to laugh'

Farce legend Ray Cooney is currently directing a revival of his 1983 play ''Two Into One'' at the Menier Chocolate Factory - in which he also appears as a waiter

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Ray Cooney and the cast of Two Into One
© Catherine Ashmore

Ray Cooney: I've always admired what the Chocolate Factory does. My wife and I have been going regularly for a number of years, and for much of that time I've talked to [producer] Tom Siracusa and [artistic director] David Babani about reviving one of my plays. When we finally fixed a date they said "which one shall we do?", so I said "why don't you try the most difficult one", which is Two Into One. It's got a crazy, mad set, with six different settings including two conjoining hotel suites. So there's a hell of a lot to do, and the actors have to do such a lot of business. It's a killer in the nicest way, but I thought if anywhere can do it the Chocolate Factory can.

Half of the cast haven't done anything like this before, though three or four of them have done several of my plays. Michael Praed, who's playing the lead, is very experienced but has never done a farce so it's a steep learning curve for him. And then I'm joining them too. I don't often feel old, but I realised on the first day of rehearsals that four of the people in the company weren't even born when I wrote the play [1983]. And it feels like one of my more recent plays!

It's lovely to be able to pass on the tips and tricks I've learned over the years, for example 'eyebrows up', which means that when you get angry you don't growl, you look amazed. Richard Briers once told me it was the best note he's ever had. The key thing is to have good actors, as opposed to comedians who are trying to milk every line for humour. You have to play it for real, because you want the audience to relate to the drama. The key to farce acting is not to play it as farce.

We had a discussion about updating the play to the present day coalition government, as I did for the Mill at Sonning production a few years ago, but in the end we decided to take it back to the 80s. In the very first version it wasn't about politicians but about actors, and the lead was having an affair with the ASM. But then I realised it wasn't as funny, because there was nothing at stake. As soon as I had the idea of setting it in Thatcher's government and turning him into a Tory MP, it suddenly made sense.

Complicated business: The cast of Two Into One
© Catherine Ashmore

Everything in my career has happened by chance. As a young actor I wanted to be Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier. When I was 24 I'd probably done about 150 plays thanks to being in rep, and then I joined [actor/manager] Brian Rix in 1956 for a four-year spell. I thought I should find something to do during the day that wasn't chasing girls and playing tennis, so I had a go at writing plays. Then I got into directing and eventually became a producer when I took a lease on the Duke of York's. All of this happened by chance! A bit of me still wants to be Marlon Brando.

Acting is the thing I love most, and the week before rehearsals for Two Into One started my chum Brian Murphy, who was due to play the old waiter, rang up and said he had to have a hernia operation. So I rang Bernard Cribbins, who said "I'd love to do it but I'm 85 and I can't learn a line". So I decided to do it myself - and, usual story, it all happened by chance.

One of the technical demands of this play is the number of doors. I told the cast the story of when I was in Run for Your Wife and a door came off in my hands, during a scene when several characters were meant to be locked behind it. But of course the audience love it when things go wrong so you can't really lose.

People need to laugh. When people are in a deep depression, the thing that goes from them is the ability to laugh. Laughter is a wonderful fillip. And that's why the theatre will never die - you put a group of kids in a room together and before long they'll be larking around and trying to entertain each other.

I'm not entirely sure whether I've got another farce in me. I think I might stick with revivals, unless I get struck by a terrific idea. But who knows? I think Ben Travers wrote one when he was about 90, so it would be silly to totally dismiss the thought.

Two Into One opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory on 19 March