Comedians, Lyric Hammersmith, London
Why the old ones are still the best
Monday 19 October 2009
Vibrantly revived now by Sean Holmes, Trevor Griffiths's 1975 play Comedians has a simple, dramatically satisfying structure that bravely exposes its main character's thesis to a practical test. In the first act, we see six would-be stand-up comics in a night school run by Eddie Waters, an idealistic veteran of the Northern music-hall circuit who believes that true comedy should challenge stereotypes, liberate the will and help change society.
This view is sneeringly opposed by Bert Challenor (Keith Allen), the pragmatic talent scout who proclaims that "we're not missionaries, we're suppliers of laughter". The meat of the matter is the middle act where, in a tacky bingo club, the comics perform their sets. Some have modified these with racist and sexist gags to pander to the visiting scout. Goaded in the opposite direction, young Gethin Price unleashes an "alternative" routine of Grock-inspired mime and proto-punk, bourgeois-baiting hatred that freezes laughter on one's lips.
In this latter role, David Dawson is transfixingly good – a fey, wiry elf bottling feral fury, the danger all the more potent for its mocking dainty containment. And he shows you the suffering in this youth's soul right to the meniscus of his brimming eyes. Matthew Kelly is good as Eddie, but could afford to reveal more of his brooding melancholy.
The presence of Richard Herring in the first-night audience brought home how far the comedy circus has moved on since Griffiths wrote the play. This summer, Herring came in for some politically correct stick for Hitler's Moustache, a show that challenges racism by riskily appearing to flirt with it. It's a moot point whether old Eddie would favour such ironic stunts. Would he think they carried his philosophy forward or took it to potentially self-finessing extremes?
You can, of course, no more legislate for laughter than you can for, say, the male erection and the play courageously leaves the issue open to question with its often disgracefully funny middle act. All of Holmes's cast have terrific raffish punch here. They are almost too good. I particularly liked Mark Benton and Reece Shearsmith as a sibling ventriloquist-dummy double act whose routine collapses because of an internal dispute over telling a "Paki" joke. These days, tellingly, the breakdown would be deliberate and constitute the act.
'Comedians', to 14 Nov (0871 221 1729)
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto buy a stake in Reddit as A-list invests $50m
- 2 Prince held a Facebook Q&A and this is the only question he answered...
- 3 'F*ck it, I quit': KTVA reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 4 35,000 walrus gather ashore on north-west Alaska beach 'for a rest'
- 5 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
Ed Sheeran dedicates song to David Cameron
Star Wars 7: David Fincher's sequel idea sounds a lot more intriguing
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
The Osborne Ultimatum: Chancellor’s benefits freeze bombshell will affect ten million households
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
Benefits 'smart cards' plan revealed by Iain Duncan Smith to stop claimants spending welfare money on alcohol
- < Previous
- Next >