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Theatre review – Out of Order

Out of Order – review for Essential Surrey website

4 STARS. Ray Cooney’s Out of Order proves that farce handled properly can still make for a brilliant evening’s entertainment at the theatre, says Andrew Morris. Showing March 10-11.

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Ray Cooney has been associated with the theatre for a scarcely believable 70 years, initially as an actor but then also as a director and producer of his own trademark farces. Out of Order was first performed at the Theatre of Comedy in the 1980s. This revival will tour the country for 30 weeks. We were privileged to see it at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, on just the second day of its long run.

Farce relies on structure, confusion, mistaken identity, a little bit of potential tragedy, and perfect timing. And often adultery. And, on this occasion, a sash window.

Out of Order takes place in Suite 648 of the Westminster Hotel, a stone’s throw from the Houses Of Parliament. Which is just as well, because suave Junior Minister Richard Willey (played by local actor Andrew Hall) is about to sleep with attractive young Jane Worthington (Susie Amy) – Jeremy Corbyn’s secretary – when he should be supporting Theresa May and his own Tory party in a crucial vote.

But their adulterous passion is thwarted by the unfortunate discovery of a dead body, wedged in the sash window behind the curtains of Suite 648. What would any self-serving, quick-thinking, philandering politician do in this awkward position? Well, obviously not report anything to the hotel management or to the police. What would Mr. Willey’s wife say, after all? Or the Prime Minister?

No, the only practical solution is to call your broad-shouldered and naive Principal Private Secretary. George Pidgen (Shaun Williamson) is soon caught up in his Minister’s increasingly tangled web of deceit. The momentum of the farce increases from scene to scene, as the quick-thinking politician creates ever more imaginative lies to save his own devious skin. Nothing like real life, clearly.

The Minister’s wife Pamela (Sue Holderness) arrives unexpectedly. As does Jane’s dim husband Ronnie (Jules Brown), suspecting his wife of having an affair and looking for his missing private detective to prove it. And then Nurse Gladys Foster (Elizabeth Elvin), carer for George’s elderly mother, after hearing that the previously shy civil servant appears to have got married that day, without telling them.

All the while, the hotel manager (Arthur Bostrom) casts a superior eye over the sordid shenanigans, and the sharper-than-he-seems room service waiter (James Holmes) cleans up on tips for facilitating the mayhem.

It’s easy to be sniffy about farce, and whilst it may not match Shakespeare for dramatic depth, this production of Out of Order clearly delighted the packed Guildford audience. The updated political references were a nice touch, and the entire cast launched themselves into the chaos of the plot with the energy of a back-bencher making his maiden speech.

An unexpected appearance by Mr Cooney himself, bounding onto the stage to help out when the curtains in Suite 648 collapsed in sympathy with the sash window, was a real bonus. The French have given this famous farceur the honour of calling him Le Feydeau Anglais. A much deserved accolade. Carry on farceing for many more years please, Ray.

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Book review – Terrorist by John Updike

John Updike is lauded as one of America’s greatest writers. He was a prolific creator of novels, short story collections, essays and literary criticism. He is one of only three people to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

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And I’m almost ashamed to say that Terrorist, written in 2006 and one of the last works before his death in 2009, is the first Updike novel I have read. But it won’t be the last.

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Terrorist is eerily prophetic. It takes place a few years after the 9/11 atrocities invaded the minds of previously complacent Americans, but its characters and plot foretell with uncanny accuracy the constant jihadi threat facing Trump’s USA and the wider western world 10 years later.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a US-born teenager, whose Irish-American Catholic mother Teresa had a brief relationship with an Egyptian, Ahmad’s now long-gone father.

They live in the ironically named town of New Prospect, the New Jersey equivalent of Trump’s mid-West rust-belt, where once vibrant businesses decay, people struggle to find work and neighbourhoods have become increasingly multicultural.

Ahmad is in his last year of High School. He is bright but has no immediate ambition, other than to drive a truck. He knows that his God – Allah –  will show him the right way forward. And, thanks to instruction of the Qur’an since he was 10, by Imam Shaikh Rashid at the local mosque, he knows not to succumb to the siren call of Joryleen, a sexually aware black girl in his class at school. As much as he is tempted.

Jack Levy is a world-weary careers advisor, who sees the potential in Ahmad. Jack’s wife Beth is fat and has become lazy, and he embarks on an ill-fated affair with Ahmad’s promiscuous mother.

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There is almost an overload of religious education in the first third of the book. We read swathes of the Qur’an with Ahmad and see how Shaikh Rashid begins to foment Ahmad’s radicalisation; Jack is a Jew, but struggles with his own faith and guilt; Teresa is clearly a somewhat lapsed Catholic.

At the age of forty, she has parted from a number of men, and how many would she want back? With each break, it seems to her in retrospect, she returned to her single life with a fresh forthrightness and energy, like facing a blank, taut, primed canvas after some days away from the easel.

As the plot develops and the characters’ lives intertwine, Updike’s powerful prose entraps you, like a fly in an arachnid’s web.

“What is freedom?”, Shaikh Rashid asks, his eyes opening and breaking the skin of his trance, “As long as we are in our bodies, we are slaves to our bodies and our necessities. How I envy you, dear boy. Compared with you, I am old, and it is to the young that the greatest glory of battle belongs. To sacrifice one’s life,” he continues, as his eyelids half shut, so just a wet gray glitter shows, “before it becomes a tattered, exhausted thing. What an endless joy that would be.”

Terrorist eases into being a conventional, taut thriller, but thanks to the author’s mastery of language and storytelling, it is so much more.

And it has also made me fear that there is no obvious solution to the threat of constant attack by so-called radical Islamists, who see death and destruction of Western infidels as the only Straight Path to follow in life.

Book review – Waiting for Sunrise

I’m a real William Boyd fan, thanks to old colleague Steve Coles recommending him back in the 1980s.

The author is often described as a master storyteller, and Waiting for Sunrise is no exception.

Its hero, actor Lysander Rief, spends time in pre-WW1 Vienna undergoing pyscho-analysis for a sexual problem. His analyst, Dr Bensimon, talks about the benefits of parallelism, but it’s the bedroom antics of Hettie Bull, a gamine sexual manipulator, who solves Lysander’s problem quicker than the shrink.

The action moves to London, where our hero becomes a reluctant spy. Then to the trenches on the front line, neutral Geneva – where Lysander conjures up a nice line in torture, and back to London.

So all the usual Boyd ingredients are there….international locations, well-drawn characters, evocative descriptions and a labyrinthine plot. Another fast-paced, readable cracking yarn.

And yet, and yet, and yet….

Sorry, William. Something is missing. I can’t quite identify the gap, but a piece of the literary jigsaw is missing. I know….who am I to criticise one of the greatest living British writers.  But somehow the narrative strands don’t fit together as perfectly as they did in Restless, for example. And it feels to me as though the author is occasionally going through the literary motions.

An imperfect William Boyd book is still a rewarding way to spend a few hours of bookish time, but I hope the great man isn’t running out of steam just yet….