Is the world too old now for farce? Ray Cooney clearly doesn’t think so, although in his programme notes he does object somewhat to his dictionary’s definition of farce as “a ridiculous or empty show”. Instead he believes that “the best farces are tragedies”. The sad thing is that you may agree with him for all the wrong reasons.
Tom, Dick and Harry, starring the not-quite-so-cool members of the McGann clan, is a tightly-paced and acted show which starts in a middle class two-up-two-down in Kennington inhabited by Scousers. So far so farcical.
As we open, Tom Kerwood (Joe McGann) and his wife, Linda (Hannah Waterman) are rehearsing their lines ahead of a visit from the adoption agency. Desperate to ensure things go right, panic is already beginning to set in when Tom’s spivvy brother Dick (Stephen McGann) turns up from Calais in Tom’s van, laden with dodgy cigarettes and booze that he wants to store in the spring-cleaned house.
Add to that younger brother Harry’s (Mark McGann) bird-brained scheme to depress the value of the house they are living in to make it affordable to buy by burying body parts from the hospital under the patio, and the stage is set for some classic calamity.
My dictionary defines farce as “low comedy with a ludicrously improbable plot”. Well, there are certainly plenty of below-the-belt jokes and “ludicrously improbable” goes a fair way towards summarising the above.
At one point during the manic proceedings (which left me feeling rather Tom and Dick myself), yet another layer of madness is added as a pair of illegal immigrants are found stowed away in the back of Tom’s van. “They must be looking for asylum” says Dick. “They’ve bloody found one!” quips Tom. Too right, I thought.
The play, in one sense, is brilliant. It shows a pair of authors (father and son Ray and Michael Cooney) at the top of their game – no over the top predicament is too high, no blackly comic joke too low, and no potential escape route for our hero is left unbarricaded.
The feeling of being trapped is wonderfully conveyed by Joe McGann (who started off a little quiet but improved steadily); brother Stephen is superbly greasy as he comes up with further layers of deception to try and help his sibling; and brother Mark plays brain-dead almost too well – to the point where his pre-pubescent nasal voice begins to grate.
Hannah Waterman is probably not matriarchal enough to keep her husband dramatically in check, sounding more like whining Michelle Dotrice in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, but Louise Jameson provides us with a satisfying harridan of authority as Mrs Potter, the humourless jobsworth from the adoption agency. Mark Wingett (Carver from The Bill) is masterfully typecast as the none-the-wiser policeman investigating dodgy tax discs, while the refugees are given their “funny foreigner” status by accomplished performances from Brian Greene and Sarah Wateridge.
In another sense, however, it all feels terribly dated. The choice of opening theme in Love and Marriage and the lovingly crafted Terry and June set just made me feel like I had been transported back to an age where we laughed at “darkies” (here in the form of Albanian refugees) and stern matriarchs (not, in this case, the mother in law, although (perhaps ironically) a fictional mother-in-law dies off stage under a bus). It feels like a beautifully crafted museum piece and nods to the 21st century in mentions of Desperate Housewives can’t save it from feeling out-of-its-time.
In some ways, many audience members might say, who cares, when you’re having this much fun? And normally I would agree. But the tight pacing and frenzied ramping up of jeopardy began to make me feel like I was wearing a strait-jacket that, by the end, I couldn’t wait to take off.
It may, as they say, run and run, and in these times of doom and gloom, perhaps that’s a good thing. But, honestly – why pay 40 for a show when My Family or reruns on UK Gold will give you much the same for a fraction of the cost?