Eddie Waters (Richard Moore), northern comedian, believes that humour should do more than just entertain and encourages his night school class to base their material upon their own experiences. When faced with an unsympathetic judge the students have to decide whether to remain true to Eddie’s philosophy or resort to cruder humour. Meanwhile, Gethin Price (Kieran Hill), Eddie’s protégé and most talented student, has his own ideas on the purpose of comedy.
With hindsight we can appreciate how Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play anticipates the movement towards comedy routines, in which the humour is based upon observations of life rather than just a series of punch lines and put downs of people different from ourselves. Modern audiences may not appreciate the way in which Gethin Price’s anarchic outlook reflects the scorched earth ethic of the Punk Rock movement but the willingness of performers to compromise their ideals for fame is more relevant now than when the play was written. The central theme of the play – examining the nature and purpose of humour – remains as fascinating and powerful as ever.
Helen Goddard’s set, whilst an admirable recreation of the period, is much too neat and tidy to convey the austere feeling of a worn out school room and shabby working men’s club. Fortunately director David Thacker is able to compensate for the lack of atmosphere. As well as drawing excellent performances from the cast, he brings out the latent hostility and competitiveness lying under the jokes that the characters throw at each other. It is a shame that Thacker could not take a few chances with the text and, say, trim some of the songs to condense the play from three to two acts and become a more manageable length.
The very talented cast bring out the humanity of characters, who might otherwise be no more than the articulation of the author’s arguments. Their body language is so good that they do not even need to speak to communicate. Having betrayed his teacher’s ideals George McBrain (Colin Connor) tries to apologise with a wordless gesture. The twisted skull-like grin of Mark Letheren shows the desperation and fear that drives Phil Murray.
It takes awhile for Hill to get under the skin of Gethin Price. His military stance seems at odds with such an anarchic character. When, however, he performs Gethin’s act the approach works perfectly and gives us a superb articulation of class hatred. This contrasts with a deeply humane performance from Moore who goes beyond the cliché of the worn-out old trouper to show a compassionate and perceptive man who, sadly, is no longer able to relate to his audience. One cannot help but feel that if the two men could reconcile their differences they would be an unbeatable double act.
It is great that Comedians retains its relevance and power. The Bolton Octagon gives us a comedian who has the last laugh.