Jiggery Pokery, Battersea Arts Centre, London
Thursday 10 December 2009
Kenneth Tynan once noted that Noël Coward had been Slightly in Peter Pan as a child, and wholly in Peter Pan ever since. Charles Hawtrey, who played the same role, was much more of a lost boy, as we see in this one-woman show, in which Amanda Lawrence impersonates him and 47 other characters, male, female and animal. Jiggery Pokery, described by the director and co-author Paul Hunter as "a homage to a true English eccentric", didn't make me like or admire an actor I have never found funny. It has, however, added, to my superficial view of Hawtrey as disturbing, several layers of disquiet. This deft, daft collage of public and private moments has plenty of laughs, but it also shows us the chin trembling with rage and fear, the trembling hand pouring gin into the teacup.
Making her eyes big and her lips invisible, the skinny Lawrence, in sad slacks and rimless glasses, plausibly re-creates Hawtrey's plucked-chicken looks, and her swift, precise movements provide plenty of old-fashioned fun, especially when she runs round a table becoming each seated character in turn or plays every actor in a scene from Peter Pan.
Some of the roles are quick as a wink, such as the three chorus girls who squeal and vanish in less time than it takes to say "Oh, hello" (did Hawtrey and his sometime Carry on co-star Leslie Phillips never have dispute over ownership of this catchphrase?). We see more of Laurence Olivier (Lawrence, good at crisp or quavering voices, makes a poor fist of his), who wears his Nelson hat while being driven to work in a Rolls (a shopping trolley, with hood ornament) and of Hawtrey's mother. At first cloyingly possessive, she slides into vagueness, then dementia – there is a grisly scene reminiscent of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – while Hawtrey's comic pratfalls give way to alcoholic collapses, and being knocked to the ground after propositioning an indignant man.
Lawrence, in focusing on Hawtrey's hermetic, neurotic existence, at times slipping into fantasy, and on his best-known work (the Will Hay and Carry on films), omits much potentially interesting material, such as his success in West End revue and farce. And did his reckless promiscuity never come to the attention of the police? Within its limits, though, this is an entertaining portrayal not only of Hawtrey but the mad, mad world of the English.
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