SPIRIT OF ’84 IN A BUDGET-DAY FARCE
“Why is a civil servant from the Home Office posing as a Dr Christmas from Norwich auditioning an actor from Kingston?”. Why is a hotel corridor alive with panicking establishment figures in towels? And can that ginger wig really be explained as part of a Tory revue skit on Neil Kinnock? We are in the Westminster Hotel and the world of Whitehall farce, of which the author Ray Cooney is graduate and heir. This one dates from 1984, which is both its interest and its weaknesss.
Plays with timeless emotional content, however period-fixed, are safer revivals than farce, where character is a cartoonish plot-driving device. You might wonder whether this revival does more than memorialize an interesting point in the evolution of the British Sex Farce: the year when embarrassing bedroom misunderstandings suddenly dared to include male-on-male liaisons as well as the trad pajamas-meet-negligeé variety.
It is set during the Thatcher government, the hero a Home Office minister about to present an anti-porn bill: but the political setting is only a device to make the potential disgrace credible. After Yes Minister and The Thick Of it we tend to expect sharper lines about ministerial hypocrisy, and door-slam bedroom farce itself has been growing mould ever since Frayn spoofed it back-to-front in Noises Off. But if this is as much archaeology as entertainment, it is classily executed.
Ray Cooney himself directs, and plays the doddering hotel waiter with a taste for Kung Fu moves and tips. Michael Praed has a senatorial enough air as the Home Office minister (tiresomely called Willey) attempting adultery with the PM’s secretary and ending up overdosed on benzedrine and hectic lies. Josefina Gabrielle makes a nicely lustful Knightsbridge-matron as his wife Pamela with needs of her own. But the heart of the play is Nick Wilton as Pigden: the shy, tubby civil servant charged with booking the guilty pair a hotel room. Wilton plays it shudderingly but gallantly terrified, making increasingly crazy attempts to smooth things over and fend off Pamela. A fine physical clown, he combines absurdity with brief but precious moments of real poignant desperation.
But I did have irritable moments, even while appreciating the deft engineering of an eight-door farce and the sideways-sliding set by Julie Godfrey. Cooney knows his stuff, follows the First Farce Law Of Non-Consummation, and sparkily introduces a new character halfway through the second act to drive a fresh set of complications. But the best TV sitcom has become smarter and sharper in the last three decades, so and jokes like ‘When it comes to porn, everyone wants to take up a position” or “Send up sandwiches and champagne” “Vintage?” “No, fresh ones” ring tiresome on modern ears. I suspect from the cackling around me that it works best after a couple of drinks, so this is one of those situations where sobersides critics are not reliable guides to a jolly mid-priced night out.
But I did appreciate some excellent trapped-in-a-trolley work from Kelly Adams as the panicked girlfriend. And Pigden’s loyalto to his minister is a shining example to all Sir Humphreys: perhaps they’ll have a post-Budget stress Whitehall staff outing.