Sue Holderness and the art of farce

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Master of farce Ray Cooney celebrates 70 years in showbiz with the new production of his classic, Out Of Order (Brighton Theatre Royal, Monday to Saturday, March 20-25).

Cooney is working with producer Tom O’Connell to launch a brand-new season of Ray’s comedies. The first is an updated version of his Olivier Award-winning Westminster comedy.

When Tory Junior Minister Richard Willey tries to spend the evening with Jane, one of the opposition’s secretaries, in the Westminster Hotel, things don’t exactly go according to plan, starting with the discovery of a body trapped in the hotel’s unreliable sash window.

Enlisting the help of his hapless private secretary George Pigden, Willey finds his sticky situation going from bad to worse with the arrival of Jane’s distraught young husband and with the addition of an unscrupulous waiter plus his wife, Mrs Willey – played with relish by Sue Holderness (Only Fools & Horses, Green Green Grass).

“Ray is just unbelievable,” Sue says. “He is fantastic. I first worked with him in 1973, and he is exactly the same now, with exactly the same energy and exactly the same enthusiasm. He comes bounding into the rehearsal room. He is always there early.”

Sue has done a huge amount of Ayckbourn in her career, and John Sullivan, Only Fools and Horses writer, has of course been the other great writer she has worked with.

“But with Ray, it is farce, and Ray understands it absolutely. Everything has got to be very precise. You listen to him and you learn so much. It is such a privilege. There are not many farceurs left.

“People ask me why Only Fools and Horses still appeals to people, and it is because it appeals to every single age group, and there are not many shows that are like that. That’s part of the reason the show has lasted, and it is exactly the same with Ray Cooney. Every age can watch him. You get shows now that are great for teenagers or are great for people in their 30s or great for the older generations, but not so many that appeal to everyone from five to 95, and that’s what Ray does. And the fascinating thing about Ray is that he appeals so internationally. And the fact that he has been making people laugh for 70 years. It is wonderful to work with him.

“I did a few of his plays in 1973 and then my career went in other directions and I was doing a lot of Ayckbourn and then all the John Sullivan. If it hadn’t been for those two, my career would have been very, very different.

“But with this, it is just a small part I have got, but a fantastic part. I am the minister’s wife, and he is supposed to be at a late-night sitting in the House of Commons. In fact, he is in the hotel planning a night of frolics with Jeremy Corbyn’s secretary…”

By the time Sue appears on stage, everything is nicely set up for the great lines she is given to deliver: “I spend a lot of time in a cupboard. It is great fun!”

Ray Cooney’s credits include Run For Your Wife, Funny Money and Two Into One, Caught in the Net and It Runs in the Family.

Out Of Order was first produced regionally in 1980, under the original title Whose Wife is it Anyway, with Cooney playing George Pigden. The show was subsequently produced in the West End in 1990 starring Donald Sinden, Sandra Dickinson and Michael Williams, with Cooney directing.

The current production features Arthur Bostrom, best known for his role as Officer Crabtree in classic sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo as the Hotel Manager, alongside Shaun Williamson (EastEnders, Extras) as George Pigden.

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