THEATRE / Plot on the trot: Paul Taylor reviews Ray Cooney at the Playhouse

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THERE was a time, about three years ago, when they seemed to have instituted a rule at the Playhouse against two or more actors congregating on the stage at any one time. These were the days of the back-to-back solo shows: Donald Sinden as Wilde, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, Leo McKern as Boswell etc. If you got so much as a 'voice off' at this address, you considered it a crowd scene. Now that it has been taken over by Ray Cooney, the house regulations are doubtless in for a change. Indeed, given the propensity of his plays for settling in to long runs, the fashion here could be set to switch from one person per show to one show per year.

It Runs in the Family, Cooney's latest piece, gets off to a head- start with this reviewer because it doesn't, like a fair number of farces of this sort, have one of those ouch-provoking pseudo-puns in its title, viz Wife Begins At 40 or Cooney's own Run for your Wife. (I'm surprised no one thought of It's Not the Man In Your Wife . . . which, apart from being a nice nod to the old Mae West gag, would really show you meant business smut-wise.) But though the title may be tickety-boo, the play (for all its periodic patches of comic delirium) is pretty disappointing.

The farce is frenetic but curiously under-driven and gives the impression at times that its plotting is as hand to mouth as that of its cornered hero, working, like him, on the desperate ingenuity of the moment, without any overall game-plan.

Set in a hospital common room at Christmas time, the play, briskly directed by the author, focuses on a self-important neurologist, Dr Mortimore (John Quayle). He is just about to give the lecture of his career (with a knighthood depending on it) when he finds himself pelted with the surprise fruit of a misspent youth. A former nurse (Sandra Dickinson) bursts in with the news that not only is Mortimore the father of an 18-year-old boy but that his son (emotionally unbalanced and under arrest for drunk driving) is now in reception baying for his long lost parent.

'If you're going to tell a lie, tell a whopper' is Mortimore's credo and in the spiralling chaos of deceit, false identity and manic cover-up that ensues, he certainly acts on this principle. Mad situations are created where, for example, to put the police off the scent, three male doctors decide to impersonate matron (the real matron having been jabbed in the bum with a syringe of Largactil while wrestling with the son outside on the window-sill). An embarras of matrons made worse by the fact that one of the doctors is the sergeant's nephew.

The confusion is intensified by a conveniently half-batty, half-shrewd old party in a wheelchair (excellent Henry McGee) who is passed off as the nubile former nurse's husband: 'I must say the little woman has worn amazingly well,' he remarks in puzzled satisfaction.

What badly weakens the logic of the piece, though, is the idea that Mortimore would be prepared to go on and start his speech with trousers rolled up and in a female wig and keep breaking off to rejoin these antics backstage. In the real world, this behaviour would be far more career-endangering than being exposed as the father of an illegitimate child.

There is the additional problem that Mortimore is so thoroughly unlikeable that it's hard to give a damn for him. Fortunately, the nice, hapless doctor (well played by Cooney) who is bribed to pose as the father ends up taking home a ready-made family for his trouble. Harmless, mirthful but not so precision-built and strictly no themes please, we're British.

Continues at the Playhouse, London WC2. Box Office: 071-839 4401