Theatre Harry and Me Royal Court, London

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The Independent Culture
For reasons closely linked to the fact that the word "humorist" tends to fill my heart with dread, I have never got on with Nigel Williams in his Two and a Half Men in a Boat comic prose mode. A surprise, then, to detect myself finding longish stretches of the first act of Harry and Me, his new play at the Royal Court, quite deliriously funny. Most of the first-night audience seemed to have given up laughing for Lent and when I made favourable murmurs to two friends during the interval, they looked as me as though I had just announced a passion for the song-stylings of Des O'Connor. Though grimly determined to carry on liking the play, I was forced, in the face of an increasingly desperate, same-mixture-as- before second act, to defect to the unsmiling majority.

Directed by James Macdonald, the piece is set in the under-populated office of a trashy TV chat show that's now on the skids. Williams is out to demonstrate how people in television can get so enclosed in the bubble of their alternative reality that they virtually cease to function as moral beings and retain interest in the outside world only in so far as it can be processed and packed into their cheap, pre-existing formats. This is not exactly earth-shaking news but, in the first half, there's a dramatic drive and drivenness to the way Williams illustrates the point.

The mobile phone played a key role recently in Poliakoff's Sweet Panic. Here a farcical plethora of phones, mobile and otherwise, are juggled by the chat show's producer, Ray - a man whose fuse is not so much short as Lilliputian - and his long-suffering, long-in-the-tooth researcher, Tracy. If the next edition is to go on air, this couple must (a) locate the projected C-list pop star guest who has cancelled and (b) talk the alcoholic host, Harry, back to the office from what seems to be a suicidal bender during which one of his mobiles gets stolen and passed round the pub. With Sheila Hancock in truly inspired form, having to assume accents from all corners of the globe, and a hyper Ron Cook singeing the phone lines with outbursts of manic obscenity, the show makes occasional lift- off.

For all the cast's heroic efforts (reinforced now by Dudley Sutton's mild mannered, bewildered host), Harry and Me remains grounded in the second half, as the basic gag is grindingly repeated. To show that Ray has been morally maimed, Williams shows him reacting with willed unconcern not just to the contrived revelation of Tracy's breast cancer but to the fact that the host's newly discovered son is dying of Aids. In the absence of much mirth, you start brooding on the implausibilities (why didn't Harry just switch off his mobiles?) and on the fact that a play written by a television producer about television people losing touch seems, ironically, itself to have lost contact with what is really worth worrying about now in relation to this medium. Perhaps Harry could be booked on to a future edition of Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge - a fictional chat show host on a meta-chat show. It would be more enlightening about the state of our culture than much of this.

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