Set in Leeds Empire in the last days of variety. Plenty of things happen, but no real plot develops. Theatre manager Stanley Hinchcliffe is plagued by a series of problems: the band’s held up in traffic, the Watch Committee has its eye on comedian Reg Henson’s blue material, most of the artists seem on the brink of either collapse, extra-marital relationships or quitting the business. Worst of all the London office has replaced the second on the bill with a best-selling girl pop singer who looks set to usurp Reg’s position in the Number 1 dressing room and the second half finale.
The trouble is that none of these develop. In particular singer Janey Shore proves so amenable that, without any argument, she settles for the Number 2 dressing room and the first half finale. Instead there are artificial panics and the only real drama is whether Reg Henley will get on stage after his drunken trashing of his dressing room. Monologues express characters’ problems, sometime sliding out of role, as when a Mary Whitehouse parody produces an eloquent sociological speech on variety’s damaging effect on the working classes.
Only When I Laugh is as old-fashioned a new play as I’ve seen for some time, with only the eruptions of obscenity from Reg Henley and a moment of nudity from the same source (neither a particularly well-judged effect) to remind us that this is 2009, not 1959.
There are some laughs to be found, of course, and some decent performances, though director Nicky Henson tends to let things drift and does little to individualise the stereotypical characters. Jim Bywater (Reg) manages a fine proletarian passion at times and exhibits a nice sense of mischief, but is nowhere near the life force of Frank Randle who, I imagine, was the original. Neil Sheppeck is convincingly understated as second comedian Sam Bolton whose off-stage character seems to be based on George Formby, and his relationship with Rita (Stephanie Thomas) has a touching humanity.
As Stanley, Jack Shepherd himself disappoints. In my experience always a compelling actor, this time he seems to lack focus. We can believe his mix of indecision, fear and rumpled dignity, but projection is oddly muted and sometimes lines lack clarity.