Out of Order – New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

Writer & Director: Ray Cooney
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Ray Cooney is, surely, the master of British farce, writing many for the West End. And all are very British in nature, poking fun at our betters as they get into, and try to extricate themselves from, sticky situations. We can feel superior to the characters, some of whom are the authors of their own misfortune while others are innocently caught up in a whirlwind over which they have no control.

And so it is with Out of Order. First produced in 1990, it is presented here with topical updates. Our protagonist, Richard Willey, is a junior minister in the Government – which opens the door to gags about Brexit – who should be at an all-night sitting. Instead, he has booked a suite in a nearby hotel for a night of passion with Jane Worthington, a secretary in the House. All seems set for a successful night of seduction when Richard finds a body trapped by an unpredictable sash window. Thoughts of passion are forgotten as he seeks to rid himself of the body and maintain the images of himself, the party and the hotel. He enlists the aid of his PPS, George Pigden, a dim but dutiful man who is baffled at first but finds himself desperately inventing more and more outrageous stories to try to keep the evening on an even keel. Add in unexpected interruptions by hotel staff, spouses and other interested parties and all the elements of farce are present and ready to come together.

In common with many farces, Out of Order’s plot is paper-thin and piles absurdity upon absurdity until the edifice surely can’t maintain itself, only to pile on yet more. The characters are unashamedly two-dimensional but the quality of the writing and direction raise what could be a sleazy little piece to enjoyably undemanding comedy. So what if much is predictable – there is pleasure in anticipation when we see character after character court death by leaning through the window that repeatedly drops without notice.

The first half is perhaps a bit creaky, hesitant and slow to get going as the situation and characters are set up. But be patient and the second half fairly storms along leaving laughter in its wake as we watch the characters make matters worse over and again.

At this performance, the central character of Richard Willey was played by last minute replacement, Jeff Harmer. Harmer starts off rather hesitantly with some lines fluffed and others underplayed but swiftly grows in confidence. His comic timing is certainly spot on as doors are opened and closed and attention diverted. Shaun Williamson is the initially priggish Pigden, with split loyalties. At first, he seems remarkably stupid but Williamson makes his descent into complicity, even as his eyes are screaming for release, a masterclass of comedy.

James Holmes’ waiter, a Mr Fixit who sees and hears all but says nothing (if the price is right), is wonderfully over the top lighting up the stage whenever he enters, while Arthur Bostrom’s pompous manager is well judged. Further comic relief is provided by Sue Holderness, Willey’s wife who seeks to surprise him (and is undoubtedly successful) and the arrival of Pigden’s mother’s nurse (Elizabeth Elvin) both of whom react almost believably to the scenes they discover.

Recently, one might have wondered if farce was a spent force, if modern audiences are perhaps too sophisticated for it. But the production of such plays as One Man, Two Guvnors and The Play That Goes Wrong and its spin-offs shows that there is still the appetite for an evening of carefully crafted chaotic and, yes, trouser-dropping farce that Out of Order goes some way to satisfying. Yes, the script, despite its topical references, is dated harking back to simpler times, and some of the jokes are older than the audience but if you seek an unchallenging night of light entertainment you are likely to come away satisfied.

Runs until 15 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

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Undemanding Comedy

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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