Richmond Theatre
Opened ?? July, 1996

Some four decades into his writing career, Ray Cooney has turned out his first adaptation; a case of returning the favour, really, as author Francis Veber is the French adaptor of several of Cooney's farces. Fools Rush In retains a whiff of boulevard comedy the plot is grounded in the walk-out of wealthy publisher Peter Brooks's wife, and in the very final moment the promised happy resolution may have stalled but the free hand of Cooney is evident.

Rather than being generated by an improbable chain of circumstance, the farcical goings-on are here caused by a well-meaning idiot: amateur tapestry-weaver Harold Wilkinson (Dennis Waterman), whom Brooks had planned to take to a humiliating "berks' dinner" at the Garrick. When events overtake them, Harold pitches in with a good heart and twelve left thumbs, always saying or doing the wrong thing to the wrong person: mixing up Brooks's wife and ex-girlfriend, getting carried away during role-playing telephone calls and even bringing a drily determined Inland Revenue inspector into an apartment largely furnished with the proceeds of tax evasion. About the only calamity not directly attributable to Harold was the sound-effect malfunction on the first night in Richmond, leading to a self-conscious running gag every time Gerald Harper, as Brooks, had to activate the speaker system on his telephone.

Waterman relishes the chance to play such a nebbish, all Essex whine and sticking-plastered spectacles, but one can only laugh at so much berkdom before beginning to share the boredom and frustration of the characters around him. Eric Sykes makes a timely arrival as the tax inspector who, although drafted in to help track down the errant Mrs Brooks, cannot help but nose around the place. Sykes's playing is masterly; his grasp of delivery, timing and gesture lifts the comedy onto another plane, until he is ushered off all too soon by the demands of the script.

Gerald Harper and Moray Watson turn in workmanlike performances as Brooks and his friend, but feel out of place when forced to play obvious gags; the over-egged script and Cooney's own direction belie his professed view that farce is only a shadow away from tragedy. Moreover, it is tiresome to see once again the wish-fulfilment of a man in late middle age being hounded by a vivacious young woman (the pert Mandy Perryment as Brooks's ex); in the world of farce, it seems, every ageing Hefner has his personal centrefold. The final scene, in which truth, repentance and sentimental reconciliation gain the upper hand, is reminiscent of one of those moralising codas which so used to bedevil inferior American TV sitcoms, in which the lesson to be learnt is spelt out in capital letters.

It would be surprising if Fools Rush In were to become the first of Cooney's plays not to make it into the West End, but this would owe less to its merit than the fact that, like Lloyd Webber musicals, such pieces have a solid critic-proof constituency. Resistance, alas, is futile.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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