January 12, 1991: Ray Cooney, Out of Order

Shaftesbury, The Theatre of Comedy Company

A first-rate farce by Cooney in the hallowed Pinero tradition: a dignified public figure is subjected to indignity which in effect he brings on himself. Donald Sinden is Richard Willey, MP (“indispensable to Johnny Major”); Michael Williams is his PPS (Private Parliamentary Secretary), George Pigden; Jane Worthington, played in a high chorus-girl voice by Sandra Dickinson, is the secretary Willey is attempting to seduce. All the action takes place in a suite in the Westminster Hotel, which Willey has taken for the purpose.

Of course, he is never able to get her into bed (no sex, please, we’re British). His attempts are foiled by a seeming corpse, in actuality a private detective whom Ronnie (Michael Fenner) has hired to pursue his wandering wife Jane. The mechanical trick that precipitates a good bit of the action is a very large window with a problematic sash; at any dramatically opportune moment, the window being open and a person of some importance being employed in leaning through it from the balcony outside, it falls, striking the person on the neck and rendering him temporarily unconscious.

The dramatic result is that true sexual animal spirits are revealed from behind the facade of British propriety. Richard Willey (“Just call me Dickey; Dickey Willey”); George Pigden — a particularly repressed fellow with a mother who reacts like a barometer to his every unexpected change; Nurse Foster, the proper woman caretaker of George’s mother; and Pamela, Willey’s middle-aged wife — they all confess in action that they are boring creatures looking for satisfaction. Jane is of course included, though she is too polite to mention what her husband Ronnie shamefacedly confesses — that he is no good in bed. Licentiousness is the real order of the day, though by ordinary standards of propriety everything is out of order.

The misbehaving window sash is the perfect contrivance here, and it is in fact emblematic of the dramaturgical contrivance that drives the entire play. Once the curtains before the window have been pulled to reveal the apparent corpse of the detective, slumped across the window sill, we are ready for it to happen again; and it happens, again and again, whether someone is passing through the window or not. There are a lot of false alarms, when the sash just spontaneously lets go with no one near it, but we know it is going to render someone uncon­scious again sooner or later. And it does. There is a kind of inevitability about it all: this is fate in the style of farce. Just as sure as our primal urges move us to do the things our superego warns us away from, a hostile world catches us in flagrante. The symbol for the catch is the unpredictable yet inevitable falling window sash, a kind of harmless guillotine that works its terrible revenge with no discoverable after-effects. No one is left headless, everyone is finally rescued, and we are none the worse off for having released our libidos in laughter.

Some excellent farcical acting is on view, especially Michael Williams’s as the luckless Pigden, who is willy-nilly (oops) embroiled in sexual intrigue and is constantly amazed and dismayed by each successive turn of events. The quality of his dismay is indicated by a high-pitched, monotone, full-voice articulation of a repeated word or phrase (“Mr Willey! Mr Willey!”).


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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