Characters in farce are always on the edge of total disaster and the threats are often huge and serious. In Funny Money, by Ray Cooney, produced at the CoPs Club Theatre in February the basic threat comes from an anonymous criminal looking for a briefcase containing £ 735,000 which has fallen into the wrong hands, who is prepared to murder anyone who stands in his way.
It is Henry Perkins, an office worker in Fulham, who picks up the briefcase by mistake in a pub on his way home from work. He debates with himself what to do, but decides that as the money is clearly the proceeds from some criminal activity, with no legitimate owner, he is entitled to accept it as a heaven sent gift. He rushes home to book a one way flight to Barcelona for himself and his wife Jean, with a car to take him to the airport, before whoever was expecting the money can demand it back. And walks into one obstacle after another.
Jean herself is the first. She is preparing a special meal for his birthday, to which friends have been invited, and sees no reason to pack and leave home forever at the drop of a hat. The next is a detective called Davenport, who watched Henry's movements in the pub diving in and out of the toilets as he decided what to do and found them very suspicious. Henry has to partially confess, and buy him off with a substantial sum from the case. The friends Vic and Betty Johnson arrive to be told the meal is off and have to be placated. A cab driver, Bill, (always called 'Ben' by Henry) appears and is made to wait, as problems grow.
A second policeman, PC Slater, breaks the bewildering news to Jean that her husband has been found tied, trussed, shot in the head twice and thrown into the river at Putney with his briefcase, which he produces. He needs someone to identify the body. Henry quickly claims to be an imaginary brother, Archie Perkins, and under pressure creates a family of characters to hide his identity. At this Jean heads directly for a drink, as she does throughout the play.
The menace continues to grow. The murdered man had clearly delivered Henry's briefcase to the murderer, who killed him when he found the money missing, and will now be looking for Henry. Phone calls begin to come asking for 'Burfkas'. Henry understands that this means 'Briefcase' and the caller must almost certainly be the murderer. Vic answers one call, inadvertently giving Henry's address, so he and Henry are now aware it is only a matter of time before the killer shows up.
|Ray Newton & Andy Kirtley|
Jean at this point has been to bed. She is neither dressed nor sober, so Henry, very anxious to leave quickly, decides to take Betty to Spain instead and leave Jean with Vic. This quite suits Betty, but not so much her husband, and more money is shared out. The first policeman, Davenport, returns to join them in Spain, which he says his Superintendent will approve as he is himself already in Barcelona. Slater comes to take Vic, posing as Henry's brother, to identify the murdered body but his police car crashes into Bill's taxi and a passer by, who is badly hurt. Slater threatens to arrest Vic if he refuses.
Henry's nerve finally cracks and he confesses everything to Slater, handing over the briefcase and loose money. The injured passer by in the street bursts in, brandishing a revolver, revealing himself as the murderer and demanding the money. There is a struggle and he shoots wildly, hitting first the radio, which suddenly comes to life, and then a cuckoo clock which brings the bird out of its door, cheeping madly. He is overpowered, and Slater takes him away with the crucial briefcase.
Bill the taxi driver now reveals that the briefcase Slater has taken is empty, as he had earlier transferred all the money to Henry's luggage, which he is carrying. He is ready to drive them all to the airport and join them in Barcelona; and the conspirators break into relieved laughter and finish dancing to 'Viva Espana.'
The play is not the best of Ray Cooney's farces and probably received rather better direction and performance than it deserved, for this was an excellent production with first class performances from everyone. Director Eric Chorley is, as he says in the programme, fascinated by farce. He is also an experienced and skilful director of plays that vary from domestic dramas to Shakespeare, and his direction was fast, clear and brought out the best in his actors. From the first appearance of Ray Newton as Henry, gasping in the doorway at the extraordinary thing that had happened to him, to the final dance as the group set off for Spain, the action flowed without stop.
Hall-mark farcical routines were drilled to perfection. Juggling with identical briefcases to switch them one for another, raising a blanket neck high at critical moments to hide money being fed in and out of the stack of notes, and the high comedy sequence of invention and fantasy explanations were all perfectly timed.
Christine Mackinven as Jean moved unsteadily from drink to drink convincingly throughout the play as the pressures rose, suddenly sobering up at the end. The first policeman Davenport, played by Charles Compton, very assured, was enough off centre to make it no surprise that he could be bought. Paul Morton played the second policeman Slater with quiet authority and was clearly incorruptible. The married friends were Vic Johnson, somewhat slow and bewildered, played by Andy Kirtley, and Betty Johnson, an attractive, feisty character by Karen Janes. Bill, the baffled taxi driver was very steady with considerable presence. It was no surprise that he resolved the final situation. The Passer-by, who turned out to be the dangerous angry gunman at the end, rounded off the whole piece in a strong performance by Barry Lee.
Ray Newton as Henry was on stage throughout almost all the play and was the pivot for the whole production. He made a wonderful first appearance, and his ability to keep a spontaneous sense of worry and invention going, and to regulate the pace for two hours, spoke volumes for his ability.
The stage design by Richard Hitch was a fine reduction of the London set to the much smaller dimensions of the CoPs stage. The doors were solid and clicked open and shut with all the firmness farce requires, and the décor was just right. A brief glance at the acting edition showed that under Lighting, the requirements were: General throughout: Act One cues: - none. Act Two cues: none. This was followed to the letter!
The play itself came over as at times mechanical and with a sense of the author's invention flagging as situation relentlessly followed situation. Some diversion would have been welcomed, a sub plot of boy and girl lovers perhaps, to give the comedians and the audience some breathing space. But any sexual interest was confined to a suggestion of wife swapping which seemed to lack either affection or much desire, a play of words on 'pussy,' a suggestion that Henry was up to no good in the toilets of the pub, and a repeated misunderstanding of the fumbling beneath the blanket. More half hearted schoolboy jokes than any true sense of humour.
All the same it was a fast and well paced production. At the end a lady going out said, 'That's the best laugh I've had for a long time!' Well satisfied.
John Ringrose lives in Greenwich. He has played and directed in theatres across the country, is retired, and is at present concentrating on scripts for radio.
Review: John Ringrose
Photographs: Steve Beeston