Stand-up comedy can have a very short shelf-life these days. If you go back several decades, the situation is different. Topicality and street argot didn’t usually form part of the act. What mattered was an ability to read an audience’s mood, to fit the material to each new house as though it was freshly minted (which it often was) and, above all, to be professional.
John Fisher has written an authoritative biography of Tommy Cooper and from this has distilled the script for Jus’ Like That! (one of Cooper’s catch-phrases). Between the re-creation of Cooper’s stage and television act we are in his dressing-room, where no star can be a hero to his assistant. Fighting ill-health partly caused by an over-indulgence in spirits and cigars, he is propelled towards yet another appearance before an adoringly expectant audience. Downing a lethal mix of alcohol, joshing the long-suffering Mary, ignoring stage management’s ever-more frantic warning calls for his entrance he yet retains the professionalism to check each of the props he will use.
As we come into the auditorium, Cooper’s own voice and contemporary popular music lulls us back to an earlier sort of live entertainment. It is a measure of Clive Mantle’s skill in his portrayal of Cooper that the transition is seamless. I had the impression that those older audience members with fond memories of Cooper himself were instantly convinced by Mantle. To use classic comic material from the past and make it sound as though being employed for the very first time takes a great deal of skill, as well as affection and dedication.
Cooper’s act involved a lot of magic tricks – some of them deliberately fluffed. Making an illusion work takes practice. Making it appear to go wrong while turning apparent disaster into an off-beat success takes a different sort of mastery. The evening ends with an extraordinary sequence which may be an after-life experience (with a nod to A Matter of Life and Death) just another illusion.
Carla Mendonça has the thankless job of providing the sort of fluffy sequinned eye candy associated with male solo performers of comedy and stage magic. She does it with just a hint of knowingness but has the chance – which she takes – to make a proper mark in the dressing-room scenes and at the end. Patrick Ryecraft directs this new touring production designed by Alex Marker. The magic consultant is Geoffrey Durham.