It's been quite a week for octogenarian legends in Theatreland. We've had Angela Lansbury returning to the London stage after a forty year gap with her delicious Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. And now look at what Ray Cooney is up to at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
The 81 year old master farceur has not only directed this peppy, smartly-cast revival of his Thatcher-era hit, Two into One, but he's also performing in it as a doddery, profoundly incompetent waiter who is nonetheless a dab hand at collecting hush money and inclined to go into Kung Fu action if any slur is cast on his age.
These days, it's “flipping” and the expenses scandal that fuel farces about politicians as in the recent Duck House where the MP and his spouse had to make a frantic attempt to pass off their London flat as a main home. In Cooney's 1984 romp, by contrast, we're to understand that out-of-town big-wigs stay in the kind of swish Westminster hotel where Home Office minister, Richard Willey (no, you read that right) has brought his wife for a break.
But while she is out at a matinee of Evita, the philandering smoothie-chops (spot-on Michael Praed) is planning to have two hours of adulterous bliss with one of the PM's young secretaries. The task of booking another room, under an assumed name, falls to George Pigden, his sorely tried PPS who bungles the whole thing badly with the result that the love-nest is next door to the marital suite. The complications start to go seriously crackers when, on returning early, the sexually frustrated Mrs Willey (glorious Josefina Gabrielle) develops the hots for the PPS, a podgy little celibate soul who lives with his mother.
The play is supposedly set just before a debate about a bill that would outlaw pornography. But Cooney makes surprisingly little comic capital from the potential exposure of political hypocrisy. There's an anti-vice campaigner “Chilly Lily” Chatterton (a redoubtable Northern battle-axe in Jean Ferguson's amusing performance) who is on the prowl but the plotting never allows her to pose a sufficient threat to the minister's career and the stakes, at least in this regard, aren't raised.
Instead, you have the pleasure of watching deliriously daft hanky-panky, cleverly counter-pointed in adjoining mirror-image suites (the witty sliding design is by Julie Godfrey) and executed with engaging vim and dexterity by a crack team. Pallid man-boobs flecked with soaps suds from the bubble bath he has taken with his boss's randy wife, Nick Wilton is a joy as the long-suffering PPS, an improbable object of passion who is forced into every convolution of desperate cover-up on Willey's behalf – to the extent of feigning an affair with a Foreign Office tea boy.
The farcical proceedings never become merely ingenious, though, because they are always warmed by radiantly silly high-spirits and the dialogue is littered with endearingly groan-worthy gags and verbal cock-ups typified by the hotel manager's censorious declaration: “There's far too much sex in this hotel and I'm not having any of it”.
To April 26; 020 7378 1713