There seems to be a lively trade in exhuming dead English comics at the moment. In the same week that Nottingham Playhouse has unveiled Get Off My Foot], a homage of sorts to the northern comedian Frank Randle (1901-57), the West End sees the premiere of What a Performance, a recreation of the life, times and humour of Sid Field (1904-50), the Birmingham- born comic who found himself an overnight smash after some 26 years of touring provincial venues and whose period as an acclaimed genius in London and the US was cut short by stress-and-drink-related heart disease.
Where Get Off My Foot] takes an oblique approach to the past, bringing Randle's vulgar, anarchic style of comedy into collision with a sensibility informed by modern performance art and the alternative circuit, What a Performance tackles Field and his era much more four- squarely in a mixture of sketches and sketchiness, old routines interspersed with brisk snatches of dramatised, not to say diagramatised, biography. Of these, the former work best by a long way.
If you discount a couple of poor, unrepresentative movies, there's so little footage of Field with a live audience that he survives chiefly in the prose of eye-witnesses like Kenneth Tynan. David Suchet, who impersonates the comedian, is too compact in physique to get the elephantine, delicately lumbering quality in Field that Tynan noted, and scarcely has a natural peasant innocence, but he skilfully projects some of the 'angelic relaxedness' and that sense that here was a slightly girlish Bottom who knew he was enchanted.
A script of Field's sketches would make grim reading. Reanimated on stage by Suchet and Christopher Godwin's excellent straight man, they take off to heights of delirious daftness. The golf routine where Suchet interprets all his partner's instructions with a gently barmy literalism ('It's behind all round it]' he cries, doing a desperate, crouched-down circuit, when told to get behind the ball) might be accused of flogging one daft joke to death, were it not for its little lateral lunges like Suchet's suddenly stopping and saying with a tongue-flicking lisp, 'Let'th pick flowerth'. Similarly, the aged wine waiter with the shakes sketch would be mildewy but for the side-splitting twists, as when the juddering waiter, unable to bring the bottle to his lips, convulsively jerks the wine in the air and tries to catch it with his mouth on the way down.
Of the biographical bits, the best that can be said is that they make you curious to know more, particularly about Field's beloved father, an eccentric, out-of-work whip-maker who would take his tea under the table, interlarding the weird ritual with mock refined cod French phrases such as 'mercy buckets'. Field's domination by his mother, his child-like reliance on his wife to stand up to managers, his fatigue and drink problem are there only in undeveloped note form, as though this were a feasibility study for a full-scale play. Field's decline seems risibly abrupt, his death the result of a bit of perfunctory coughing and his having nursed a glass of whisky on a couple of occasions. That excepted, though, what a performance.
Runs to 28 Jan at Queen's Theatre. Booking: 071-494 5040
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