Ray Cooney. Now there’s a name to conjure with. He was responsible for many of my formative theatrical experiences. Among the earliest TV plays I can remember are Stand By Your Bedouin and the fantastic Chase Me, Comrade! (for which I still have the script). He also wrote the wonderful Move Over Mrs Markham, which I saw with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle when I was about 11. The Dowager, unlike the current Mrs C, was always game for hanging around a stage door after a show and having a chinwag with a star; and as a result I met Dinah Sheridan, Tony Britton, Terence Alexander and Dame Cicely Courtneidge, amongst others, at the Vaudeville Stage Door. Mr Cooney also wrote the book to the first musical I ever saw, Charlie Girl, when I was 9, and as a result I met Gerry Marsden, Derek Nimmo and Dame Anna Neagle, amongst others, at the Adelphi Stage Door. Look, here are their autographs!
That was definitely a digression, but it was fun looking through my autograph collection again. Moving on to the here and now though, and it’s slightly embarrassing to say this – it’s a problem when you see so many plays – but I can’t remember if I saw Two Into One during its original London in the 1980s or not. I don’t think I did. But when the lights dimmed at the Menier and the old song “Love and Marriage” eased us into the first scene of Ray Cooney’s hilarious farce, it definitely rang some bells.
It’s a simple set-up: staying at the Westminster Hotel, Conservative minister Richard Willey (yes, I know) involves his PPS George Pigden in covering up a secret assignation of Afternoon Delight he has planned with gorgeous, married, researcher Jennifer Bristow. Willey is meant to be in the Commons voting on a vice bill – but has his own to attend to instead, and at all costs he must hide it from his wife Pamela. That’s really all you need to know – the rest unfolds naturally in both the reception and the hotel bedrooms as doors slam with rhythmic regularity, characters end up either in a soapy mess or hidden in a drinks trolley, accused of systematic affairs with a host of imaginary lovers, and all those other things that are absolutely de rigueur for this kind of entertainment. Ray Cooney’s direction – for yes indeed the 81 year old dramatist is directing his own play, as well as appearing in it – is swift and seamless, and the whole thing goes along at a cracking pace, barely giving us a moment to breathe before the next toe-curlingly embarrassing and mirth making plot twist.
Julie Godfrey has designed a brilliant set that at first offers you the rather long and narrow reception area of the hotel, but which gives way to the back-to-back suites 648 and 650. The living areas are in plain view with the outer bedroom areas slightly obscured, until later in the play when the floor glides in both directions to reveal both bedrooms in full. Because the scene shifts take a little while to achieve, Mrs C felt the short Act Two scene in the reception barely merited all the fuss taken to get to it, only for a few lines to be exchanged and then it’s all change again to get back to the bedrooms. I see where she’s coming from – but there’s not a lot you can do to avoid that. And I did like the in-joke where Michael Praed is walking from one suite to another along the corridor at the back but because the scene in front was shifting, he’s not going anywhere – nicely done.
You’ve got to have a great feeling for ensemble playing with this kind of show, and the cast are beautifully on song throughout. The aforementioned Mr Praed sets just the right tone for that arrogant, dashing kind of Tory who you just know is within a hair’s breadth of having his fly stuck in someone else’s ointment. An excellent study of someone who comes this close to getting caught out so many times but just manages to wangle his way out of it. Nick Wilton gives a terrific physical performance as the much set-upon PPS George, sweating buckets as he gets more and more implicated in both his MP’s and his own machinations, until he barely cares any more. For someone who, like me, is on the doubtful side of portly, his comic athleticism is completely brilliant.
There’s also the pleasure of seeing one of my favourite actresses, Josefina Gabrielle, alluringly hopping around the stage in luxury lingerie as one of Mrs Willey’s fantasies nearly comes true, and also showing her great ability for perfect comic timing. Proving there’s no political bias here, there’s a heartily funny performance by Jean Fergusson as the prim and grumpy Labour stalwart Lily Chatterton, who’s behind the Commons debate on pornography (cue one of the best two lines in the show, “What am I going to do about Lily Chatterton’s vice bill?” “Pay it!”)
There’s also great support from Jeffrey Holland as the severe, pompous hotel manager, splitting his time between sucking up to the Tory MP and vilifying his PPS (cue another great line, “there’s far too much sex going on in this hotel, and I’m not having any of it!”) ; Kathryn Rooney as the saucy chambermaid Maria, Kelly Adams as the publicity-shy but definitely up for it Jennifer Bristow (until she gets hilariously stuck in the trolley) ; and Tom Golding as the fresh-faced guileless out of work actor Edward, allowing himself to be very nearly compromised in his y-fronts to get a job. But all credit has to go to the amazing Mr Cooney who turns in a deft and spirited performance as the waiter, blundering from error to error, falling on his arse (I think that’s how that move would have been described in 1984), and generally turning misunderstanding into a fine art. He’s obviously still amazingly fit and talented.
As I gently indicated in the paragraph above, the world was a different place thirty years ago when this play was set and indeed first appeared. Political correctness as we know it today was in its infancy, and plays like Two Into One were definitely from the old stable rather than the new. Not that the appeal of a Feydeau-type farce should ever diminish – why should it? The whole dramatic construction between playwright and director and the razor sharp skills needed of the cast will always make such a play a delight to watch; and of course couples wanting a bit on the side is something that’s never going to go away. The only thing just slightly out of kilter with today is the play’s use of homosexuality as a source of mild disgust to a couple of the characters. I’m sure that in 1984 such references would have been completely mainstream – but today, for me, it just slightly irked. But then it is a revival of a thirty year old play, and I am never an advocate of re-writing history or burning the books, so I guess it just has to go with the territory.
Jam-packed full of fun and a masterclass of ensemble precision timing, the show had the whole audience in hysterics. For a couple of hours of mindless mayhem, you can’t go wrong. Very funny indeed and highly recommended!