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by Michael Cooney
Linda Swan - Jan Bursby
Directed by John Sivewright
ONE of master-farceur Ray Cooney’s many plays is ‘It Runs in the Family’, and perhaps he knew what a prophetic title it was, since his son, Michael, is also a writer of plays and screenplays. ‘Cash on Delivery’, perhaps Cooney Jr’s best-known play, tells the story of Eric Swan, who has been defrauding the Department of Work and Pensions by claiming benefits for several fictitious lodgers, but now wants to stop. He does have one real lodger, Norman Bassett, who is dragged unwillingly into Eric’s ever more complicated web of lies and deceit when an inspector from the DWP comes calling. Eric also has a nice sideline in selling contraband medical clothing in partnership with his Uncle George, who works in the local hospital.
As the story gets more and more convoluted and Eric has to tell bigger and bigger lies to cover up his earlier ones, the brain reels with trying to remember which character each character thinks another character is impersonating – see what I mean? But as in all good farces, the chaos develops with a sort of inevitable logic.
There are moments of hilarity, of course, but also some of quiet amusement, like the discussion about how much work a lumberjack might find in the Mile End Road, and lots of cleverly sustained cross-purposes: for example, when a gushingly caring and determinedly non-judgmental doctor is talking to Uncle George about how cross-dressing is quite acceptable, and he thinks she is talking about petty theft. There are one or two instances of plain vulgarity: there’s nothing wrong with vulgarity when it’s genuinely funny, but everything wrong with it when it isn’t.
It is a bit pompous to talk of morality in the context of a farce, but it is actually important that the apparently immoral behaviour which is the mainspring of many farces is justified in some way if the audience is not to lose sympathy with the main character. Here, Eric lists all the different benefits that are available and wails that the DWP won’t stop sending him money: a political comment by the author, perhaps?
Alan Dester plays Eric Swan fairly straight, without a lot of clowning or gurning, although his default expression is one of bemusement and anxiety and at times panic. This is a good decision, partly because the less subtle comedy is in the very capable hands of Colin Pile, playing Norman Bassett in a splendidly energetic performance. Simon Jackson as the DWP inspector, Mr Jenkins, brings off well the difficult job of being officious and persistent to start with, but then becoming a much-diminished figure as he, too, is sucked into Eric’s machinations. David Pile makes a sprightly Uncle George, Eric’s partner in the medical clothing scam and, later in the piece, an unwilling dead body. Among the supporting cast, mention should be made of Jan Bursby as Eric’s bewildered wife and Russ Guillaume as a lugubrious undertaker (second rule of farce: if no dropped trousers, bring in a lugubrious undertaker).
The production marks the directorial debut at Wimborne of John Sivewright, who uses the stage well and keeps up the furious pace that is the first requirement of farce. One practical point: if the time of day is referred to in the programme and in the script, it’s a good idea for the clock which is part of the set to agree with it.
Wimborne Drama is a distinguished company and this will probably not go down as one of its most memorable productions, but it makes for an enjoyable summer evening’s entertainment.
John Newth, Scene One
IF YOU tell lies, you’ll tie yourself in knots. Perhaps not quite as intricate as those in this farce, but nevertheless you can usually be sure that in the end truth will out, although not always with the expected results.
Having lost his job with the electricity board, Eric Swan finds himself claiming all sorts of benefits for family members with strange afflictions, and lodgers, who may or may not exist.
Not his fault of course, as the cheques just keep on arriving!
Alan Dester puts plenty of troubled life into Eric, whilst Jan Bursby is animated as his wife Linda who fears he is adopting life changing habits.
As Mr Jenkins from the Department of Work and Pensions, Simon Jackson puts in one of his best ever performances for the group. The archetypal civil servant, he manages to keep a deadpan demeanour, as he presses Mr Swan for answers, that become more and more far fetched.
Colin Pile, a regular on local stages, slips into his role as lodger Norman with great ease, and he provides much mirth as he becomes more embroiled in this convoluted plot.
David Pile evokes plenty of laughs as Uncle George, none more so than in the closing sequences.
Amy Bevan as Sally, Judy Garrett as Dr Chapman, Russ Guillaume as Mr Forbright, Val Mantle as Ms Cowper and Heather Seaton as Brenda Dixon, all add to the fun in this farce written by Michael Cooney, son of the ‘master of farce’ Ray.
The evening takes the audience on an improbably complex, yet amusing path, providing a light hearted evening.
There’s a performance tonight, and two on Saturday. Worth catching.
Marilyn Barber, Stour and Avon Magazine
Photographs: Richard Neal