Oxford Stage Company's current revival of Comedians marks a rare opportunity to revisit the play originally made famous by Jonathan Pryce, Jimmy Jewel and Stephen Rea in 1975. Trevor Griffith's piece heralded the advent of a new kind of comedy, and in 1975, the play's groundbreaking critique of the form was positively revolutionary.
Set before the era of political correctness, Comedians centres around six aspiring comics getting ready for their big night. At a preparatory evening class, the funnymen are put through their paces by their passionate tutor, a faded music hall star.
Ron Moody heads the cast as Eddie Waters, the idealist who believes comedy isn't just about making people laugh. A range of characters join him to seek fame, and both accent and costume are used well to establish their individual personalities. Memorable among the comics are Vincenzo Nicoli as the Jewish club-owner Sammy Samuels and Nicolas Tennant as the milkman Ged Murray. Tennant faces a difficult task to reappraise the role made famous by Pryce, and he does well to make it his own. However, where Pryce used a certain knowing irony to convey his character, Tennant's choice of more overt aggression does result in a loss of some of the play's subtleties.
Anthony Lamble's set designs are impressive: a realistic recreation of place from a 1970s classroom to the local club. Using the real-life audience as the fictitious club crowd for the comics' routines works well. As we chuckle shamefacedly at the dreadful sexist and racist jokes, we become reluctant collaborators to the message. For those old enough to recognise it, the main source for the play - the 1970s TV series The Comedians - is clear. Our complicity with some of the humour reveals why comics like Bernard Manning continue to find an audience.
Sean Holmes's revival is a fascinating reminder of 1970s attitudes. However, I was disappointed that it didn't attempt to be more than this. The play needs reinterpreting in light of the past 25 years, but Holmes' production only succeeds as a period piece. Its fundamental flaw is to take a retrospective stance, as a result of which the audience can safely fail to engage with its ideas. Those of us who remember the 1970s can enjoy a sense of nostalgia, but in so doing, an exciting and innovative play loses its cutting edge.