David Thacker's revival of Trevor Griffiths's 1970s classic Comedians is amusing, but it's also provocative and extremely unsettling.
Played in real time, the showcase performance of men in a northern night school for would-be stand-ups represents a drab version of Britain's Got Talent. No glitz here, just half-a-dozen blokes with a desperate ambition to entertain – or at least to tell jokes, churn out gags, spin a line or, at worst, raise a lazy laugh by resorting to hollow clichés and peddling racial and sexual stereotypes.
Their idealist tutor, Eddie Waters, a veteran of the variety circuit, believes that honest humour should challenge tired stereotypes and change society. The cynical talent scout, Bert Challenor, shrugs off that opinion with a shallow put-down of the pivotal audience/comic relationship: "We're servants. They demand. We supply."
Comedy may have moved on in many respects but that in no way lessens the impact of Griffiths's razor-sharp writing, penetrating characterisation and dark denouement. Richard Moore's coolly resigned Waters oversees the prepping of the wannabes for their big night. He's in for a surprise when, in an attempt to appeal to John Branwell's Challenor, the lads make some disastrous last-minute changes to their acts.
In a strong cast, Mark Letheren and Huw Higginson bring an emotional intensity to the disintegration of their sibling relationship as well as their ventriloquist act. George McBrain (Colin Connor) – nothing alternative, nothing too risky, just being his Irish self – is immediately signed up by Challenor. Sevan Stephan's Sammy, with his anecdotal, self-deprecating Jewish humour, wants to be in on things but remains the outsider.
In contrast, and terrifyingly executed by Kieran Hill, Gethin Price very definitely wants to be on the outside, playing the class-hatred card with a brutish venom that is riveting. His diatribe against the toffs he baits has real theatrical momentum.
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