A group of showbiz wannabes perform for a supremely confident male judge who has the power to propel them from humdrum jobs to stardom, or send them back to obscurity with a withering insult. It sounds like The X Factor, but in 1975, when none of us had heard of Simon Cowell, this was the scenario presented by Trevor Griffiths in Comedians, which went from a world premiere at Nottingham Playhouse, directed by Richard Eyre, to London, New York and productions in 20 languages. This week it returns to London, and Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, has picked an opportune moment to revive a blisteringly funny drama, which, he suggests, "feels like a lower-key precursor" of contemporary TV talent contests.
Indeed, the miniaturized three-act narratives of the preliminary round in X Factor – meet the contestants; watch their triumphant/disastrous auditions; hear the judges' verdicts and the singers' responses – might have been modelled on Comedians.
Act One: a shabby classroom on a rainy night in Manchester. Veteran comic-turned-teacher Eddie Waters (played at the Lyric by Matthew Kelly) and six aspiring stand-ups, including a milkman, a docker and Gethin Price (David Dawson), a van driver who is both teacher's pet and class rebel, have reached the end of Waters' comedy course and are preparing to audition for his longtime adversary, Bert Challenor (Keith Allen), another ex-performer, now an "agents' man" who can bestow lucrative professional contracts.
Act Two: a working men's club (the Comedians audience become its punters). We watch a double-act and four solo routines, climaxing with Gethin's shaven-headed, shocking slice of performance art. We find out whether or not Waters' pupils have abided by his heartfelt maxims on truth and morality in humour ("A real comedian... dares to see what his listeners shy away from"), or pandered to Challenor's Act One demands for populism, by falling back on the racist and sexist stereotypes that were so prevalent in the 1970s in Granada TV's The Comedians, in which the likes of Bernard Manning ran through polished routines and, the playwright felt, every joke was "a lead pellet aimed at somebody in my country and society" (it was after watching this show being recorded that Griffiths found inspiration for Comedians, in an overheard conversation about a real ex-comic tutoring young hopefuls in Manchester). Act Three: we return to the classroom, where Challenor and Waters deliver their verdicts.
In the opening exchanges of Comedians, as with reality television's fleeting pre-audition interviews, Griffiths provides just enough information about the lads' lives to make the audience appreciate how their worlds would be transformed by Challenor's approval, and thus understand the compromises they may make to win it.
When Richard Eyre's television version of the play (first screened in 1979) was repeated by the BBC in 1993, the director observed that a line delivered by the Irish builder, Mick Connor – "I want to be rich and famous. What's wrong with that, Mr. Waters?" – had gone on to become "a real text in the arts" during the 1980s and 1990s; how much more so in the Noughties.
For Holmes, Comedians demonstrates Griffiths' understanding of "that desperate need to escape your circumstances, and see in showbiz or stardom the way out. We all understand that today, especially in these extreme economic conditions." He also notes the "cruelty" of the 'You're in!/You're out!' ordeal that performers are subjected to by Challenor and, in real life, Cowell and Co.
As well as hoping that Comedians will speak to the X Factor generation, Holmes, who first staged the play for a 2001 tour starring David Tennant as Gethin, wonders how the second act jokes about black and Irish people and women will resonate in a time when, unlike in 1975, "a comedian cannot simply go on telly and say 'There's this big black fella...'." Indeed, some have credited Comedians with helping to give rise in the 1980s to alternative comedy – a movement, Griffiths wrote in 2001, "that sought to be more open and more humane, that sought not to rubbish victim targets, but rather to question and criticise the traditional and conventional basis of British stand-up".
The alternative scene was absorbed into the mainstream, Holmes adds, and was thought to have banished comic stereotypes, "but since I did Comedians eight years ago, comedy has definitely gone into areas that were being avoided then." In 2009, with Jimmy Carr making controversial jokes about gypsies and one broadsheet previewing this summer's Edinburgh Fringe with an article profiling "The new offenders of stand-up comedy", Holmes thinks "you have to ask yourself, 'Are we all post-modern, and is it really alright to do stuff about 'chavs', and attack the 'other'?" That question underpins the arguments Griffiths puts into the mouths of Waters, Price and Challenor – although Comedians explores much more than comedy. "It's about how you make any art," Holmes concludes, "and how you live your life."
Back in 1975, when the Nottingham Playhouse board took against Griffiths' script, they appeared more upset by its occasional "fuck" and "cunt" than racist or sexist gags, and asked Eyre to cancel the show. With what he calls the "terribly useful fearlessness" of youth (he was 31), he threatened to resign and the trustees relented.
He cast Jonathan Pryce, a Playhouse regular, as Gethin, alongside two other relative unknowns destined for international fame: Tom Wilkinson, as the fame-hungry Connor, and Stephen Rea, as Ulster-born docker George McBrain. The original Waters was Yorkshireman Jimmy Jewel, once half of a celebrated variety double-act with Ben Warriss, and a household face thanks to the sitcom Nearest and Dearest. "Jimmy was very nervous of a part where he did not get laughs," recalls Eyre, though Jewel gradually recognised the connections between his and Waters' lives.
After Comedians opened to huge acclaim, Griffiths remembers how theatregoers were "massively behind or massively opposed to its language, its view of comedy, everything. I loved that." Peter Hall, in his first year as director of the National Theatre and looking for outstanding productions to bring to the Old Vic (still the NT's home), saw the last of Comedians' 19 performances in Nottingham and told Griffiths it was "a stunning play", which challenged the audience's emotions "in a masterly fashion". Eyre's production had a short season at the Old Vic in autumn 1975, followed by four months in the West End in 1976. Comedians also ran for five months on Broadway, directed by Mike Nichols, and Pryce won a Tony as Best Featured Actor.
Eyre, whose ascent to succeeding Hall at the National in 1987 began with the latter's visit to Comedians, rates it as "the best play of the 1970s" and it continues to excite top directors, not only Holmes, but also David Thacker, who was in his twenties when he saw Comedians ("one of the ten best theatre experiences of my life"), staged it at the Young Vic in 1987 and will do so again in Bolton next April, and Dominic Dromgoole, who produced Holmes' 2001 revival and then, in his guide to contemporary dramatists, The Full Room (2002), stated: "Once you've written a play as great as Comedians, there's little else that you have to do in a life."
'Comedians' is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0871 221 1729; www.lyric.co.uk) to 14 NovemberReuse content