As a play about the art of comedy and its wellsprings, Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play Comedians is unmatched. And Sean Holmes’ superb revival, his first as artistic director at the Lyric Hammersmith, confirms the play’s status as a modern classic. It’s a fantastic evening of theatre.
Are remarks about women, or ethnic minorities, necessarily the product of misogyny and racism? The Manchester evening class of six budding comics, assembling for their make-or-break audition under the tutelage of Eddie Waters, an old-time vaudevillian, are challenged to make their acts count.
First, Eddie (Matthew Kelly, giving his fourth remarkable stage performance of the year) urges them to be truthful. Then booking agent Bert Challenor (Keith Allen), who played on the same bill as the legendary Frank Randle and remembers Eddie being brilliant “before the war”, urges them to suck up to the audience: “We can’t all be Max Bygraves, but we can try.”
Played out in real time, with a middle act given over to the “turns” in a small club with a diffident secretary anxious to get on with the bingo, the piece has a brilliantly worked out structure, showing how the comics fall between various stools in their efforts, save for the electrified bovver boy Gethin Price (David Dawson), who releases a stream of antagonistic abuse. Gethin made Jonathan Pryce an overnight star in the original production; no one has ever rivalled that amazing performance, but I much admire the way Dawson makes the role his own, slightly crazed from the start, with a dash of Alan Cumming, pouring his whole life’s frustration as a United supporter, van driver and class enemy, into his diatribe.
Reece Shearsmith and Mark Benton are excellent, too, as the brothers whose act falls apart as they perform it; Billy Carter and Michael Dylan are wittily juxtaposed as the Irish comedians; and Kulvinder Ghir provides a devastating cameo as Mr Patel, wandering the corridors in search of his learning class and providing Eddie with his next pupil.
Holmes’ fierce production makes no bones about staying in period, and Anthony Lamble’s design is as authentic as was John Gunter’s original. At a time when crass talent contests rule the television schedules, it’s good to have a renewed look at why showbusiness “matters” and why there’s more to it, or should be, than instant fame and material gratification.
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