Review: End of the Pier (Park Theatre)
Les Dennis stars as an ageing comic in Danny Robins' new play
This punchy little North London theatre is rapidly establishing itself as a place to go for new plays that have something to say on unusual topics. The theme here is a comedy, and our changing attitudes to it. And if that sounds rather dry, this sprightly piece by Danny Robins is anything but.
Robins is probably best known as the author of Rudy's Rare Records on Radio 4, which stars Lenny Henry and he has attracted a similarly stellar cast here: comedian and actor Les Dennis, Blake Harrison (of The Inbetweeners) and Nitin Ganatra (familiar from EastEnders). His setting is Blackpool where Dennis' character Bobby Chalk is living in semi-squalor after his career as a hugely popular comic with his partner Eddie Cheese ended in disgrace after they were filmed telling a racist joke.
James Turner's clever set (which later changes to a slick green room) evokes the shabby scene; the horrible knick-knacks, the posters saved from his past glory when he played to 20 million viewers, telling jokes that in today's more politically correct world seem at best old-fashioned and at worst unpleasant.
Bobby sees himself as the authentic voice of the working class; his son Michael, now also a successful 'observational' comic, telling jokes about the impossibility of putting on a duvet cover, sees him as the past. Michael's fiancée (Tala Gouveia, doing an immense amount with an under-written role), an upwardly mobile BBC comedy commissioner, can hardly bear to be in the same room as him. But then Michael reveals a different, harsher side and his father a more understanding one; as their roles are reversed, the drama increases. Robins takes care to build some tension, so I won't give his plot twist away. It is reasonably obvious and a bit schematic, but he uses it to raise interesting questions about the things nowadays people dare and dare not say, about the way that gentrification is just another way of pushing people to the margins, about the permanence of racist views, and – above all – what comedy's role in the debate should be.
There are also some great lines – and two pure stand-up routines, one from Harrison's Michael which shows why he is such an emolliently popular figure and one by Ganatra, as wannabe comedian Mohammed, whose truthful, dangerous turn is both incredibly funny and genuinely uncomfortable. Ganatra is superb; he arrives in the play late but brings real power and passion to it.
Before that, Hannah Price's carefully-handled production can't quite disguise the longueurs in Robins' script. He has a tendency to let each moment overrun, which could easily be addressed, since the basis of the play is so strong. That it whips along as well as it does, is thanks mainly to Dennis, who gives an absolutely terrific performance, all wounded pride and bullish sadness. He copes not only with the perfect delivery of the old school jokes to which Bobby is addicted ("We all say things we don't mean when we've had a few drinks. I once told your Mum I loved her...") but also with the changing emotions beneath them. "I sold my soul for laughs," he says, and Dennis makes you believe him.
As the play accelerates, it becomes too pat and Harrison, though an appealing presence, never quite copes with his character's transition from nice to nasty. But my attention never flagged. End of the Pier may not be quite as savage a play as Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, with which it shares both a theme and a method, but it is a pretty good and very enjoyable one.