Comedians, Lyric Hammersmith, London

Why the old ones are still the best
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The Independent Culture

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)