There seem to be a lot of live shows about dead people nowadays. Following the parade of pieces featuring the likenesses of Philip Larkin, Alfred Hitchcock and the Rat Pack, the trend continues unabated with John Fisher's raggedly constructed tribute to the late, great variety comic Tommy Cooper.
Jus' Like That brings the spirit of variety alive, if not exactly well. After a long overture, the curtain rises on a steep bank of lit stairs, upon which are arranged six dancing girls. Over them, picked out in lightbulbs, is the name 'Tommy'. If I hadn't known I was about to see a show about Cooper, I would have half expected Tommy Steele to rush on glinting his teeth.
I might have preferred that option, I think, about 20 minutes into this evening of bad magic, worse jokes and feeble reminiscence. Of course, the first two of those ingredients are Cooper trademarks, and you probably have to accept that, to appreciate them, you had to be there - but being there then is quite different from being here now. Instead of Cooper's irrepressible energy, we have the earnest facsimile of Jerome Flynn, who goes through the paces and set places of Simon Callow's production without the spontaneity that made Cooper seem like he was making it up, not to mention cocking it up, on the spot.
You can't deny Flynn's working hard to entertain - so hard, it hurts to watch - whereas the great thing about the great comics was their seeming effortlessness. But then Flynn is fighting a poor concept to contain the man as well as the jokes. Act One begins with a typical Cooper stage routine, after which the staircase swivels around to reveal the below-stairs dressing room between shows. This feeble section of Fisher's play mines a familiar, well-trodden path of backstage reminiscence, as Flynn/Cooper pays tribute to his partner Gwen (affectionately nicknamed Dove), his inspiration Max Miller and his love of magic.
For the second act, we return to a lengthier catalogue of Cooper routines, punctuated throughout by Flynn/Cooper's own laughter track whenever we're in doubt. "Heh-huhr", "he-hum-hum", "he-hah-her" accompanies most of the punchlines like a persistent gurgle.
The Right Size's The Play What I Wrote set a new benchmark for the comedy tribute by placing its own imaginative spin and commentary on its putative subjects, Morecambe and Wise; and David Benson, with his tributes to Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd, welded an intensely personal response around his recreations of their routines.
Jus' Like That, by contrast, is neither imaginative nor personal. Instead, it tries to be just like Cooper. But the trouble with the inimitable is that they cannot be so easily imitated.