Ray Cooney: Farce majeure

How long can it be before 'Run for Your Wife' is revived at the National Theatre? Paul Taylor meets Ray Cooney, the supreme professional of long-running West End comedy
Click to follow

Cartwright, Jim; Churchill, Caryl; Crimp, Martin; Coward, Noel – even Christie, Agatha. These suspects appear in the index of all self-respecting histories of 20th-century British theatre. But what about Cooney, Ray?

Since One For the Pot – his collaborative debut play in 1959 – this indefatigable farceur must have put more bums on West End seats than anyone bar the likes of Lloyd Webber, Andrew (Lord). Yet he merits nary a mention in, say, Changing Stages, the authoritative overview of the period by Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright.

There's a lobby, though, that is resolved to get Cooney his due from the Establishment. Patriotically preferring him to that overrated frog Feydeau, The Daily Telegraph regularly agitates for a knighthood, and in his recent show, If I Ruled The National Theatre, Ken Campbell argued that popular culture on the South Bank should not be confined to revivals of Broadway musicals. There should also be retrospectives of Cooney and his ilk.

It's interesting, too, that the farceur's name has become a kind of touchstone for anti-pretentiousness amongst maturing Young Turks. The director Dominic Dromgoole paid warm tribute to Cooney in his notoriously crap-cutting book The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting. "Occasionally," he wrote, "the wildness and the exuberance of [his] inventions take you into an area of innovation that outdoes the avant-gardists of the physical theatre world, and without a thousandth of their pomposity. He's only ever going to be as fashionable as Lionel Blair. But just as I'd rather watch Lionel Blair tap-dancing, than see some self-appointed genius waving his willy round while talking about stone-age caves to disguise his mid-life crisis, so I can think of worse evenings to be had than watching a Ray Cooney play."

How does the man himself feel about the height of his cultural profile? Does he wake up fretting that Donald Sinden is now a "sir" and he isn't? Does it rankle that Deborah Warner has yet to blowtorch the patina of tradition off Move Over Mrs Markham? "I don't have the time to think about it," he laughs when we meet up in Bath. Life has certainly been hectic for him of late.

Firstly, there was the August premiere of Caught in the Net, the "sequel" to his long-running smash Run For Your Wife, which catches up with John Smith, the bigamous London cabbie still exhaustedly burning the candle at both ends. And now Cooney is on the road again fine-tuning his production of the Broadway hit Over The Moon, a backstage farcical comedy by Ken (Lend Me a Tenor; Crazy For You) Ludwig.

Set in the early 1950s when television and movies were busy destroying live theatre, it features a spoof version of one of the few surviving thespian couples, apart from the Lunts, who were still touring. The movie director, Frank Capra, desperately needs replacement leads for his current film and is coming to see their matinee. But our duo's chances of success diminish by the second when news of extra-marital paternity drives the leading man to the bottle and various cock-ups leave the company divided over whether it's Private Lives or Cyrano de Bergerac they are performing that afternoon. Starring Joan Collins and Frank Langella, the show opens next Monday at the Old Vic.

A boyish-looking 69, Cooney has the air of a sweet-natured odd-job man, coupled with the commanding voice of a go-ahead vicar. He's only been in Bath a few days, yet from the welcoming grins of the waitresses, it's clear that he has made himself popular at this restaurant. His niceness is as glowingly conspicuous as the aura bestowed by Ready Brek.

So you feel dubious about asking him a sneaky question such as this. In Caught in the Net, there's inevitably a point where the trusty lodger (the brilliant Russ Abbott) is discovered in the compromising position of pretending to give the bigamist the kiss of life. From behind his Zimmer frame, the Eric Sykes character surveys this passionate snog and says: "I bet you wish it was Joan Collins." Did Cooney, I wonder, ever wish it wasn't Joan Collins?

At first, he takes me to mean: is this reference embarrassing now that you're working with her? So he fills me in on the history of the line. "It was originally 'I bet you wish it was Nyree Dawn Porter'. Then Nyree died and I hurriedly changed it to Honor Blackman." It was altered again as a jokey tribute to his new colleague. "I hated elbowing Honor Blackman 'cos she's an old friend. When Joan came to see the show, I didn't tell her in advance and afterwards she said: 'Listen, I love all the publicity I can get.' She's a great one for publicity. She's amazing."

In fact, I'd meant: has it been a struggle getting Collins up to scratch? As we know from Dynasty, our Joan can be hilarious, but she's about as noted for farce technique as she is for her rough-and-ready Oxfam look. "She's certainly never worked on anything like this before," admits Cooney, "I mean, she's not used to being on a set that's got six doors". A limousine with six doors would presumably present fewer problems. But then her co-star – the American classical actor, Frank Langella – comes from a Method tradition that's of little use in a show such as Over The Moon. "Frank was always going on about 'I need to know the organic source of this'. So I said to him 'Frank, organic sauce is for putting on salads'. He's got a lovely sense of humour. There've been a lot of laughs".

The American author, Ken Ludwig, was a student in London at the time when there were epic runs of Run For Your Wife, Two Into One and Out of Order. "So he thinks I'm a cross between the Pope, Feydeau and Jesus," laughs Cooney. That must have been a help when discussing how to take better advantage of the "wonderful opportun- ities" in Over the Moon. There's a sequence, for example, where the company chaotically botches the balcony scene from Private Lives. "I thought," reveals Cooney, "supposing this balcony was the penthouse and was four storeys up. That's the way my mind works".

The combination in this piece of romantic comedy and farcical business is, he argues, an American speciality. There's no time wasted on sentiment in his own plays. "I'm always looking for some really dramatic story. Take bigamy. It's the most terrible betrayal. Having a girlfriend for a short time is one thing if you're married, but to have another life... And it suddenly hit me: there must be a funny side to this." But there's been quite a change socially, since Run For Your Wife opened in 1983. With so many men now deserting their families, you get a strange warm sense of reassurance from watching the hero of Caught in the Net frantically struggling to remain faithful to two households at once. Not that you go to a Cooney farce for up-to-the-minute social observation. Rather, it's like a time-warp world where political incorrectness has yet to be invented.

In the wake of The Full Monty, he found himself wooed by Hollywood producers keen to cash in on Brit fashionability. "The big thing they always say is that you've got to open it up, when the fun of these plays is that they are claustrophobic." He knew nothing would come it when they suggested Arnold Schwarze-negger for a part originated by Donald Sinden. But when he told me of a luxury cruise from San Francisco to Sydney and back, during which he and his regular cronies put on several fully staged farces before a captive audience, this seemed a perfect scenario for a clever mixed-genre movie caper with trouble fore and aft and focuses tight and fluid. "Yes," says Cooney, ever the professional, "and I could call it All At Sea."

'Over The Moon', Old Vic, London SE1 (020-7928 7616) opens on Mon; 'Caught in the Net', Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2 (020-7836 9987)