The revival of Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 modern classic is the first production directed by Holmes in his tenure at the west London landmark, and for it he has assembled a stellar ensemble. Nearly the entire company took part in last night’s discussion: Matthew Kelly (as Eddie Waters), Keith Allen, Mark Benton, Reece Shearsmith, Kulvinder Ghir, David Dawson (Gethin Price), Billy Carter, Simon Kunz and Michael Dylan.
In the play, six wannabe comedians attend an evening class at a school in Manchester in preparation for a performance in front of a London agent. Faded music hall star acts Eddie Waters acts as their tutor, in an age when comedians wore dicky bows and political correctness was decades away.
The original production of Comedians, which transferred to the National Theatre and the West End after its premiere at the Nottingham Playhouse, starred Jimmy Jewel as Eddie and Jonathan Pryce as aspirant Gethin Price. Pryce later reprised his role in the play’s Broadway premiere. There hasn’t been a major London production in nearly 20 years, though Holmes did revive it in a 2001 tour that starred Ron Moody as Eddie and David Tennant as Gethin.
Last night’s Q&A was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. Click on the 'play' button above to listen to it in full. Edited transcript highlights follow …
On why they wanted to do the play
David Dawson: The last few parts I played on stage were characters of a low status, victims who were abused by society, so as soon as I picked up this I was very excited to be confronted with a monster and a man who’s fearless. And even though he is of a low status, by god, he’s a fighter.
Mark Benton: What really convinced me were the massive amounts of money (laughs) and the opportunity to grow sideburns. No really, it’s a great play, and I haven’t done a play in such a long time.
Reece Shearsmith: When I knew that I would be playing the brother of Mark, I knew I had to do it. We’ve worked together before and he’s great fun.
Billy Carter: I’ve worked with Sean Holmes on five or six productions. In 2001, we did a three-week tour of Comedians and we were meant to have a future with it but it didn’t happen. I knew when Sean got this (job at the Lyric Hammersmith) that he’d want to do this play again, it was like unfinished business. He wanted me to play a different part (Northern Irish George versus Southern Irish Mick). I knew what I was going to get myself into with Sean because we have a very good shorthand. Also, when I heard who the rest of the cast was, I had to join in.
Matthew Kelly: This is a great play to end the year (this is Kelly’s fourth major London stage production this year, following Victory, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Troilus and Cressida). I mean, they’ve all been fantastic. But I love this theatre, there’s something about it that’s splendid, and I haven’t played here since the early Nineties. I also really like that this is a team event. What’s really unusual is that, in this company which is made entirely of men, there are no egos or competitiveness. It’s an amazing group of people to work with.
On the original production
Matthew Kelly: I saw this play originally in London with Jimmy Jewel playing my part, and he was older than God when I saw it – the description of the part is “elderly”, so I was insulted!
Keith Allen: I never got to see the ending because I walked out of it the first time. I found it too theatrical. I was annoyed that, as a member of the audience, I had been asked to participate. My view has changed though, because now I’m a man instead of a young idiot.
On whether it’s a period piece
Keith Allen: My daughter who is 24 came to see it, and at the end she asked, “Dad, was it really like that? And I said yes ... It is a period piece, per se, but all the acts in the second act you could probably see them on television if you were around then. And the kind of philosophy and drive that Eddie is talking about applies to them. I think if you wrote the play for the present time, it would still work. What Eddie is saying applies as much now as it did to those comics for being racist or homophobic, which is basically, comedy is not sweeties to rot your teeth with. I think there are far too many comics today giving you sweeties to rot your teeth with. There’s very little danger in today’s comedy, so I think it’s very relevant.
On the changing nature of comedy
Simon Kunz: Take someone like Bernard Manning: he knew how to tell a joke whether it was about black people or whatever it was. A joke is like a mechanism, a well-oiled machine. It can snap at any moment. It’s about the fact that you’re getting people to respond to something that they shouldn’t but they do. It’s the new movement, the have-nots coming up and saying “fuck you, we’re going to have it now.” It works.
Michael Dylan: If you make a joke about a Pakistani or rape, people may give a chuckle but they’re afraid to laugh. But if you joke about an Irishman, an Englishman, or a woman, people laugh out loud. What’s the difference?
On Trevor Griffiths’ involvement with the revival
Kulvinder Ghir: Trevor was very involved. He came to rehearsals, as much as he wanted to be detached from it. He found this group of people who were so committed to it. In the first two weeks, some people were already off the book. It was madness! Trevor saw that it became personal and that the group became united. After each run, he would would go back to the hotel and go over each act and say “I love what the guys are doing.” He loved the amount of care people had put into it ... He’s coming again in a week.
On the cast’s “works outing”
Matthew Kelly: We went to see Cannon & Ball, and all these stand-ups, and it was an amazing thing to watch. If you ever get a chance to go to Dartford, don’t go! It’s really frightening. But the acts are practically the same as they were back then. They do their acts, and then they come away, and there’s no sense of team spirit. I didn’t think they were racist or sexist or homophobic, but they were stuck in a time and so was the audience.
On audience expectations created by the title
Reece Shearsmith: I think they expect it to be more full-on funny. You laugh at awkwardness, but there are some genuinely funny moments. I think the audience is relieved when we get to the second act because in the first there are some really awkward moments.
On Sean Holmes as a director
Reece Shearsmith: Sean is good with actors because he only strives to do the truth of any moment, which is the point of acting: to try not to be acting. He’s mindful of the reality of the situation. It’s a delicate thing to work on the different philosophies (in this play). I think he was constantly looking at the characters and trying to make their choices really real.
Matthew Kelly: I think this theatre’s really lucky to have Holmes. It’s rare to find somebody who’s a fantastic director and a fantastic artistic director - they’re both very different jobs - and Sean is both. This is his first theatre, and it’s time that he had a theatre and this is the perfect theatre for him. The spirit comes from the top, and he’s the man ... He’s a fucking brilliant bloke.