Edinburgh Festival `98: Cook returns in a `wistful' way

PLAY WISTY FOR ME PLEASANCE
"I WENT to a Nazi school. It's a little known fact that Hitler founded a number of schools in England. They've been dismantled since the war. All except Harrow." Anyone can imitate Peter Cook's E L Wisty, but few, I suspect, could speak with his voice as surely as Matthew Perret in Play Wisty for Me, a two-man show about Cook's life and work.

Every line of the play (by Perret and his fellow performer Jeremy Limb) is completely new, but it often sounds like undiscovered material. Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling lives again: "Women are like licorice allsorts. Some you chew, some you suck and some you say `Get out of my life you harridan and take your pine furniture with you'."

In addition to reincarnating Wisty, Streeb-Greebling, and Derek and Clive, the show attempts to set the record straight on a life that many persist in viewing as wasted.

When Cook died in 1995, after many years largely spent in a haze of drugs and alcohol, Stephen Fry made a furious attack on the idiots who had written reports on his life. Matthew Perret in the character of Streeb-Greebling makes a similar defence: "They say that I `haven't fulfilled my potential': I fulfilled my potential by the time I was 25!"

The show also addresses the conflict between Pete and Dud in a deliciously spiteful reworking of the one-legged Tarzan audition in which Pete wonders whether "a club-footed short-arse from Dagenham" is a suitable candidate for Hollywood stardom.

Each pastiche is used to tell us more about Cook himself. The piece is a little uneven - opening and closing with the collapse of Cook doesn't really work - but it doesn't outstay its welcome and individual gags are sometimes hilarious.

Ultimately, the play seems unable (or unwilling) to decide whether Cook's later years were a tragic waste or not. But that's fair enough. I can't decide either.

Louise Levene

At Pleasance to 31 August

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