Writer: Ray Cooney
Adaptation: Michael J Barfoot
Director: David Warwick
While the term “Whitehall farce” originally only applied to a series of five comedies that played at the Whitehall (now Trafalgar) Theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, it has since become synonymous with the tradition of low farce plays, particularly those written by Ray Cooney.
Cooney specialised in knockabout comedies that rely upon increasing levels of complication in plotting, usually as the central character spirals and inveigles the supporting characters in a rapidly expanding web of lies. That was especially true for Whose Wife Is It Anyway?, which after a rename and a West End transfer became Out of Order, an Olivier-winning comedy centred around a philandering MP (thus becoming one of the only Whitehall farces to be actually set in Whitehall itself).
Over thirty years later, Donald J Barfoot performs some light tweaking to create a new version of Out of Order, retitled once more as It’s Her Turn Now and with the adulterous MP now a woman, Rebecca Willey (played by Elizabeth Elvin). Some lines place the events in the present day – Willey is a junior member of Rishi Sunak’s government, and there are several references explaining why there is such a reliance on landline telephones in the age of mobile communications. Otherwise, though, this is Cooney farce through and through.
With the entire action taking place in a hotel suite overlooking the Houses of Parliament – site of a liaison between Willey and Raphael Bar as John Worthington, an adviser to the Labour leader of the opposition – there is a reliance on the several doors in Alex Marker’s set, lovingly and suitably decorated to the standards of a traditional London hotel. Yet no doorway receives as much usage as the suite’s sash window, whose tendency to come crashing down is the cause for Rebecca finding a body trapped beneath it.
As Elvin gradually transforms from an in-control, high-flying politico who is comfortable lying to her husband about her whereabouts into a frenetically improvising mess, it is her private secretary, Georgia (Felicity Duncan) who bears the brunt of all the rapidly changing lies and excuses. In so doing, Duncan becomes the pivot around which the whole play rotates, and it is in her sure hands that It’s Her Turn Now comfortably sits.
Director David Warwick could pick up the pace in Act I, which would help cover some of the scenes in which set-up and exposition threaten to crowd out the comedic lines. But in general, the cast assuredly cranks up the pace with every turn of the farcical screw, so that by the time everything is running full pelt in Act II both ensemble and audience feel suitably warmed up.
Gender flipping of roles is not always as productive as creative teams hope but, in this production, it does bring benefits. The lion’s share of the characterisation, traditionally given to the men, falls upon Elvin and Duncan’s shoulders, resulting in a far less imbalanced approach to the sexes than the original. There are casualties, too: Michelle Morris as a wronged woman becomes a caricature, alternating between acts of violent rage and paralysing hysteria in ways that audiences 30 years ago may have found funnier being exhibited in a man.
The hotel staff remain immune to the gender swapping, allowing James Holmes the chance to steal the show as an opportunistic waiter whose ongoing contributions to the mayhem yield ever-increasing amounts of tips. It is a role he handles smoothly, perhaps because he is reprising a role he performed in a 2016 tour of Out of Order – a production which saw this adaptation’s director performing as the body, while Elvin had the role of the nurse taken in It’s Her Turn Now by Jules Brown.
The biggest problem, perhaps, with the whole conceit is that a modern-day MP avoiding a sitting session of the House to conduct an extramarital affair seems so tame by the falling standards of the current intake. With the likes of Matt Hancock being caught on CCTV, Boris Johnson participating in multiple parties at No 10 during the height of lockdown, numerous members of the House involved in sexual assault allegations and one MP watching pornography in the House of Commons, Cooney’s madcap tomfoolery feels outdated not by the use of landlines, but from the air of benign innocence.
If one mentally rejects the attempts to modernise the setting, then, the result is an entertaining revival of a great example of the genre. Whitehall farce may no longer dominate the West End the way it did in decades gone by, but it can still produce some great laughs.
Continues until 18 November 2023