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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Tom Dick and Harry
Duke of York's Theatre      Autumn 2005

There is nothing wrong with this farce by Ray and Michael Cooney, except that it doesn't work for too much of its length.

Ray Cooney is a past master of the farce form, and this collaboration with his son follows his many-times-proven formula - a lie to cover a minor embarrassment leads to ever more elaborate and frantic lies as each one creates new complications.

In this case, the central character is faced with three problems that must be kept secret from others - a vanload of contraband cigarettes, a selection of body parts borrowed (for what seemed at the time a good reason) from a local morgue, and a pair of illegal immigrants who slipped into the country in the van. 

The people who must not know are his wife, the lady from the adoption agency who may bring them a baby if they pass inspection, and a curious policeman.

Tell the wife the bag of body parts are clothes for Oxfam, and she'll give them to the wrong person. Tell the cop that the immigrant girl is his wife, and he'll be confused when the real wife comes in. Tell the adoption lady that this is all a rehearsal for a TV reality show - well, you get the idea.

The fun in this formula is watching the poor shnook at the centre as he improvises cover story after cover story, trying to keep straight who he told which one to. And by the second act, when things get as frantic and complicated as they can, the audience is right along with them, laughing almost non-stop.

So why is the first half such a dud? To answer that, I have to digress for a minute. Bear with me.

Remember the Marx Brothers? You may know that, before making every movie, they would take key scenes on the road, to play before live audiences, to hone them and, more importantly, to find where the laughs were, so they could make room for them in the film.

Watch a Marx Brothers film in a theatre, and you and everyone else won't miss a thing. But watch it alone, and the timing will all seem off - you'll see Groucho pausing after every gag, to wait for the laugh, and his performance will look odd and clumsy.

Something like that affects the first act of this show. The actors wait for laughs and play to a pitch of hysteria - for example, with elaborate double-takes - that the audience hasn't yet reached, and so they seem either to be badly overacting or to be finding things funnier than we do.

And that - the actors thinking they're funny - is the kiss of death to farce.

In short, Ray Cooney the director has somewhat let down Ray Cooney the writer, by forgetting something that he knows better than anybody - that a farce has to build, rather than leap directly to its comic peak.

The first few scenes aren't meant to be hysterically funny, and when the actors play them as if they are - worse, as if they expect us to react to them as if they are - what we see is flop-sweat, actors working too hard for laughs that just aren't there.

As I said, the play eventually catches up to the level of the playing, and the second act is as satisfying as the first is disappointing, but you have to have the patience and faith to wait for it.

Acting brothers Joe, Stephen and Mark McGann play the titular brothers, respectively the innocent one forced to come up with all the lies, the devil-may-care one who enjoys the confusion, and the terminally stupid one always trying to help, and they're all first-rate, especially Mark.

Everyone else in the cast is uniformly bad, in the mode of actors trying to play comedy rather than natural comedians - it's not so much that they hurt things as that they don't contribute anything.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Tom Dick And Harry - Duke Of York's Theatre 2005
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