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BWW Interview: Internationally Renown British Actor/ Playwright RAY COONEY Talks About son Michael Cooney's CASH ON DELIVERY at the El Portal

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World renown British actor/playwright Ray Cooney will be performing the zany farce Cash on Delivery, written by his son Michael Cooney, on the mainstage of the El Portal in Noho December 3-20. Cooney performed Out of Order at the El Portal in 2001, and was a tremendous hit. In our conversation Cooney, who was bestowed the honor of OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen, and wife Linda talk about the play, and among other topics, theatre and its importance in our world right now. Linda is a landscape painter and former actress, and her work will be exhibited in the El Portal lobby during the run of the play and on to January 1, 2016.

Your comic timing is so brilliant you must be classically trained. Come to think of it, I have never interviewed a British actor who has not been classically trained, so I'm sure you were.

No, I wasn't. I left school to go into the theatre. I went straight into the theatre as a boy actor; I persuaded my parents to let me leave school. They had scrimped and saved to send me to a good school. All I ever wanted to do from when I was about 10 was to get into the theatre.

Did you ever study or do Shakespeare?

I didn't study at all, I just went in, found an agent and started to get boy's roles. There were lots of boy's roles in the plays then. There was an American play Life with Father; I played one of the sons in that. I never looked back really. I had to do my national service when I was 18. I did my national service in the army, came out and I went straight into weekly rep, and by the time I got into the West End in theatre, I had done about 150 plays. I didn't realize how much I'd learnt over the years. I was acting with actors who acted with actors who acted with actors in Shakespeare's plays. When I started, I got into a play that ran 4 years, and in those days in Equity, a run of the play contract was a run of the play. Unless you died, or had a heart attack or got pregnant, you had to do the role. The play ran 4 years, and I wasn't married at the time, and after sort of chasing girls and playing tennis, I thought I'd better do, in the daytime, that is, something else. So I said I'll start writing a play for the man that runs this lovely theatre, and I didn't realize what I'd soaked up. So, that's how I segwayed into writing.

Were you always more into comedy than drama?

No, I wanted to be either Marlon Brando or James Dean at the time. But, the gentleman I was working for Brian Rix was very famous, and he's still our best friend. He's 90 now. He was the manager and the producer of the play I was in at the White Hall Theatre, which was famous at the time. So I wrote the play for him. Having been in the play with him I saw the kind of things that made that kind of play work. It was called One for the Pot.

What a very funny title! So many possibilities!

It means a pot of tea. When you make a pot of tea, you go one, two, three and one for the pot. (he mimes and we all laugh)

Run for Your Wife came later. It ran longer than any comedy in London. Talk about that.

It was in its ninth year when it closed. By that time, I had met Linda. We've now been married 52 years and have lived in the same house for 50.

Congratulations!

Tony Hilton who wrote One for the Pot with me didn't like the pressure of writing. He just wanted to be an actor where you'e told what to do and you move there. Tony went really back to acting, so I started writing by myself. Then I wrote several plays with a lovely guy called John Chapman. We teamed up and wrote 4 plays together, which all ran in the West End. Then John decided he preferred writing for television. I had been carrying around this idea of a guy with two wives, and how he would cope with that, trying to get out of that awful situation, if there was a danger of them meeting. I had made a few notes on bits of paper. When I got to about 100 bits of paper in my pocket, I thought "I'd better start writing this." One of the best professions for a bigamist would be a taxi driver, 'cause he's always running around the place late at night and getting up early in the morning and all that. It took me about a year to write it up in the attic where I go. I did what one usually does with the plays, I wrote it, left it alone for about a month, did a rewrite, and we had a play reading with my chum actors who I know from doing these plays. I did a rewrite after the workshop, then we tried it out at Gilford, another rewrite, then came into the West End and it ran for 8 and a half years.

That's wonderful!

Linda interjects:

Linda C: About that tryout at Gilford. About 4 days before you were going to open, the lead guy went awol.

Ray C: 2 days. He got scared.

Linda C: So, Ray had to learn the lines, and if you've written a play, you don't know the lines. He learned them and played it in Gilford. It was an hysterical, terrible 4 days. I'm not sure if you know any of Ray's plays, but those lead characters are brutal on the actor. They are nonstop and you really have to know exactly what you're doing. This poor guy just ran, but rather late.

Tell me about forming Theatre of Comedy Company in 1983.

There was so much always given to the National Theatre and to the Royal Shakespeare Company. People adored the companies obviously, because Run for Your Wife ran that number of years. People love comedy. People love to laugh. It does them good. Generally, the press and the theatre goers are in that group up there rather than that group there. It's the drama, and the knighthoods are given to those actors up there. Over the years I thought, "I don't know if comedy is given the due". I got about 30 of my chums together and said "Why don't we form a national theatre company?" They all agreed, and it was lovely. You probably wouldn't recognize any of the names.

Didn't I read that Peter O'Toole appeared with you?

He wasn't a member of the company but it did attract actors like Peter O'Toole. Yes, he was lovely.

Linda interjects:

Linda C: Peter did Pygmalion. You directed Peter in it.

Ray C: Yes, he was lovely to work with.

The theatre company ran for about 10 years in the West End. My mistake was going into a very large theatre. It was too big really. We should have gone into another theatre. Anyway, it ran for about 10 years and then disintegrated.

Linda C: It also had some very idealistic ideas of how profit would be shared with everybody down to the usherettes. When things were in profit, that was great. When things weren't in profit, that's when...

Ray C: There were 2 IRA bombing incidents. There were a couple of periods in the West End when the business dipped. We were running during both of those periods. And so financially it began to fall apart. But, it was a very happy time. We all knew and loved each other.

Was that around the time when you and Michael (Cooney) wrote Tom, Dick and Harry?

Cash on Delivery was written by Michael and that came first. And after that, we wrote Tom, Dick and Harry together.

Linda C: There was a big space in between.

Ray C: Yes, there was quite a big space. Cash on Delivery was actually written 19 years ago. I directed it for Michael. We had a great time.

How many plays have you written together?

Just the one, Tom, Dick and Harry, but we had a fun time together. He also wrote a B movie called Jack Frost. It was very successful as a B movie because it cost peanuts to make. I played an old colonel. So we've worked together over the years. We always keep in touch. The lovely thing about Cash on Delivery and Tom, Dick and Harry is that they are done all over the world, in places like the Ukraine, Crimea. You're so surprised at where they're done, where there are awful things going on. And yet people want to laugh.

We need the theatre in times like these.

Linda C: I think the theatre becomes even more important, because the intellect is so overwhelming. The lack of this sort of communication. Live theatre is going to be more necessary, almost as a therapy.

So many people say that the theatre is dying, but I don't think so.

Linda C: It doesn't die. It will go on in the backrooms...it will never die.

Ray C: When you're in the theatre watching it, you really get involved with it. With a company doing comedy, it's almost like being in church. These strangers come into a theatre and by the end of the evening, I've seen total strangers (he laughs, imitating them... ha, ha, ha!) And they get to be friends. It's a lovely feeling.

Is Cash on Delivery your favorite play?

I love it because it's Michael's. It is one of my favorite plays. I so enjoy working on it, and it's got the same feeling that my plays have. You ask the actors to play it for real. You don't want to turn it into a Benny Hill show. I tend not to use the word farce, because if you use farce...even though you might have somebody dressing up as somebody else, pretending to be somebody else, or being hit by a door when it opens, silly things like that, the actors are going to be playing it for real. The audience get really involved with the drama of it. Take for example, Run for Your Wife, the story of a bigamist. In real life for a woman to find out that her husband...he's not just having a little affair with the secretary in the office, he's living with another woman, children, animals, pets... another life. It's the worst betrayal.

Linda C: You read it in the paper sometimes when two women turn up at a funeral. (I laugh)

Ray C: You see, this is the lovely thing about drama. You laughed at that and that's what happens. There's no difference between drama and comedy. You toss a coin up; it comes down. Heads or tails, comedy or drama, it's the same coin.

You have been called Le Feydeau anglais in France. That's quite an honor.

(He laughs) They do love the plays in France. That's a very nice comment. There seems to be a feeling around that the critics don't like my kind of comedies, but the truth is in London, I must say, I've been flattered always by fabulous remarks.

I think it's because the Brits do farce better than American actors.

Linda C: Americans doing American comedy are superb. They're wonderful doing Neil Simon, doing television sitcoms like Friends. They're fabulous actors; it's just a different language.

Maybe it's the training that is different in both countries.

Maybe because it's referred to as a farce, they think they have to be funny. You don't. It's the story that is funny.

American actors push the comedy too much. I always enjoy comedy more, when it's played for real.

There are farcical moments in this play but they all come out of the truth of the piece.

Do you have any other favorite playwrights in England? Do you like Alan Ayckbourn?

I love Alan Ayckbourn. He's written more plays than Shakespeare. He's just astonishing. He works so different from me. He's had his theatre in Scarborough for years that he's run. What he does, he fixes his date as the tryout, the first performance, world premiere, say for August. He might sort of have a basic idea, but he's getting on with life, and doing other work and other plays, going down to London and directing something there. His date is getting nearer and nearer. And maybe six weeks before, he'll say, 'What? Oh yes! It's set..." He'll sit down and write it six weeks before the play is due to open.

Linda C: All day and all night for about a week. I'm exaggerating but he's amazing.

Linda and Ray Cooney

Ray C: He's fantastic, and he's such a nice man.

How do you feel about Neil Simon? He's like the God of comedy here.

He is a God. Love him.

Any new playwright in England who is particularly fascinating?

There's Terry Johnson, isn't there?

Linda C: He's not that new.

Ray C: It's about 20 years since he started. What they're attempting to do is to adapt plays, maybe going back 50, 60, 75 years. I can't think of anyone really new.

Who for you is the greatest comic actor of all time?

There was a British comedian called Terry Scott who was very very good in my kind of plays.

Linda C: Donald Sinden.

Ray C: Donald Sinden, Richard Briers...

I loved George Burns.

(They both chime in, laughing) Oh yes, George Burns!

You see, the thing about American comedians, they were good actors as well, like George Burns. I'm not sure if Bob Hope fell into that category. But actors like James Stewart, they could play drama and they could play comedy.

Do you get a little apprehensive about casting your plays here as opposed to London? Of course, you hand pick your cast.

One does. You can tell from the audition which avenue they're going to go down. I'm really happy with this company. What you need is a team. A team who are going to give it to each other in the theatre. It's rather like a tennis match. If the guy on the other side of the net is a good player, that encourages you to get the ball back. You need a team, which I believe we've got here. The particularly lovely thing about this is that I'm directing my son's play, I'm playing in my son's play, my wife is with me and she is having an exhibition in the foyer at the same time. I keep saying I've waited all these years to put one over on Shakespeare and Ayckbourn! (he laughs) Because they've never done all that!

(Cash on Delivery production photo credit: Ed Krieger)

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El Portal Theatre proudly presents Cash On Delivery directed by Ray Cooney, written by Michael Cooney, December 3 - December 20, 2015, at the historic El Portal Theatre Mainstage in the NOHO Arts District, North Hollywood.

Cash On Delivery reunites the family talents of actor/director father Ray Cooney and his stage and screenwriter son Michael Cooney in this hilarious farcical romp!

The international cast includes Broadway, West End and Regional Theatre veterans: Katie Amess, Marie-France Arcilla, Debra Cardona, Michael Sweeney Hammond, Hap Lawrence, Jim Mahoney, Sam Meader, Henrietta Meire, Brian Wallace and featuring Ray Cooney as Uncle George.

Ray Cooney has earned an international reputation as the finest living writer/actor/director of this form of theatre. Charles Spencer - the doyen of theatre critics - wrote 'Ray Cooney is a National Treasure'.

Michael Cooney was born and raised in London, England, and now makes his home in Los Angeles. He is the writer and Executive Producer of the 2015 ABC Drama Pilot Runner. Other television and film credits include: Identity, Inside, Tracks of a Killer, directing and writing the cult phenomenon Jack Frost and Jack Frost 2, and Murder In Mind, the film written by Cooney adapted from his stage play, was produced for HBO and star Nigel Hawthorne, Mary Louise Parker, Jimmy Smits and Jason Scott ee.

In addition to Cooney's film work, he is also part of the British theater world. His stage writing credits include the comedy Cash On Delivery that had it's world premier at the prestigious Theatre Royal Windsor and has gone on to break box office records throughout Europe. Cash on Delivery ran for a year in London's West End before beginning a nationwide tour. His two stage thrillers, The Dark Side and Point of Death have both enjoyed successful British tours.

Directed by Ray Cooney
Written by Michael Cooney
Set and Costume Design by Bruce Goodrich
Lighting Design by Jim Smith
Sound Design by Julie Fern
December 3 thru December 20, 2015

15 performances only!

Previews: Thursday, December 3 at 8pm/Friday, December 4 at 8pm/Saturday, December 5 at 3pm & 8pm
Sunday December 6 opening at 3pm followed by British high tea
Plays Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8pm/Saturday & Sunday at 3pm
For Tickets call: 818-508-4200/866-811-4111
Or order online:
www.elportaltheatre.com


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