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Review Round-up: Critics Stand up for Comedians

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Sean Holmes made his directorial debut as the new artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith on Wednesday night (14 October 2009, previews from 7 October) with a revival of Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play Comedians, which continues its limited season until 14 November (See 1st Night Photos, 15 Oct 2009).

Six wannabe comedians attend an evening class at a school in Manchester in preparation for a performance in front of London agent. Faded music hall star acts Eddie Waters acts as their tutor, in an age when comedians wore dicky bows and political correctness was decades away.

The original production of Comedians, seen in London at the National Theatre after its premiere at the Nottingham Playhouse, starred Jimmy Jewel as Eddie and Jonathan Pryce as aspirant Gethin Price. Pryce later reprised his role in the show’s Broadway transfer. There hasn’t been a major London production of the play in nearly 20 years, though Holmes did revive it in a 2001 tour that starred Ron Moody as Eddie and David Tennant as Gethin.

In the new Lyric outing, Matthew Kelly plays Waters and as part of a stellar ensemble that also features Keith Allen, Mark Benton, Reece Shearsmith, Kulvinder Ghir, David Dawson (as Gethin Price), Billy Carter, Simon Kunz, Michael Dylan and Paul Rider. The production is designed by Anthony Lamble, with lighting by Simon Bennison and sound by Nick Manning.

Most first night critics consider Comedians a “period piece” whose “state of the nation” appeal has diminished somewhat because the state of this nation, and particularly its comedy culture, has changed so much since the 1970s. However, critics still found the Trevor Griffiths’ play at turns “bold”, “daring”, “unsettling” and “thought-provoking” in Holmes’ “meticulous” production that “retains its crusading vitality” and chimes nicely with today’s “karaoke culture”. The various performances were all roundly applauded, with particular praise heaped on David Dawson’s “stunning” turn as Gethin, played with “chilling intensity”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “As a play about the art of comedy and its wellsprings, Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play 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... David Dawson makes the role (of Gethin Price) his own … 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 … 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.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Comedians (1975), considered by many to be one of the best plays of that decade, makes us realise uneasily how greatly stand-up, but even more crucially our perception of entertainment, has evolved in three decades. State-of-the-nation dramas have a nasty habit of falling flat when removed from the particular era that inspired them. While Comedians certainly shouldn’t be booed off stage now, it’s not going to be gifted any slots on primetime television … Sean Holmes’ production leaves us feeling stranded … The biggest laughs of the evening are in danger of coming ironically from the play’s title ... Matthew Kelly is even more dour than the role demands, and if it weren’t for the sparkiness of the livewire David Dawson, we might occasionally think we’d wandered into an evening class for undertakers.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) – Trevor Griffiths scored the biggest hit of his career with Comedians (1975), an extremely serious play about what makes us laugh. If that sounds like a mixed compliment, it’s meant to. There are some great jokes, some beautifully drawn characters and a moving depth of feeling in this play. But there is also far too much earnestness, moments when you feel that Griffiths, the unrepentant Lefty, is the victim of a terrible sense of humour failure. There is, however, no doubt that Griffiths had a great dramatic idea here … It all makes for theatre that is at once funny, unsettling and thought-provoking ... Director Sean Holmes beautifully captures the sleazy milieu of the comedy world … Matthew Kelly brings a lovely sad, battered dignity to the stage as the old comedian, Keith Allen is authentically vile as Challenor, while David Dawson plays the charismatic, hate-filled rebel with a Marxist cause with chilling intensity. Oddly enough though, by far the funniest performance comes from Paul Rider, who turns the tiny roles of a caretaker and a club secretary into pure comic gold.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “First seen in 1975, Trevor Griffiths' play is a bold and daring work. It doesn't just analyse comedy. It presents it in its raw state, while obliquely commenting on class, race, gender and the condition of Britain. But, delighted as I am to see Sean Holmes reviving the play, I can't help feeling the cultural context in which we view it has radically changed … The kind of prejudice reinforcing comedy Griffiths was attacking may still exist, but it no longer occupies the central position it did on TV in the 1970s … The piece itself remains an extraordinary mix of wordplay and state-of-the-nation drama. It calls for exceptional acting, and it certainly gets it from David Dawson in the role of Gethin … It is a stunning performance, strongly buttressed by Matthew Kelly as the weary but still optimistic Waters, and by Keith Allen as the commercialised Challenor …Griffiths’ play is of its time but, in Holmes’ meticulous production it retains its crusading vitality.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) – “Trevor Griffiths was hunting some big game in 1975... This revival by Sean Holmes can’t have the same impact now, fine though it is — the comedy mainstream that these men lean towards or against has changed for good ... This is a period piece, yet it’s organised around what’s effectively a talent contest, chiming nicely with our karaoke culture ... Amid the laughs — Comedians is stuffed with jokes, though it’s not exactly a comedy — there’s constant conflict. Reece Shearsmith and Mark Benton excel as a warring double act of brothers ... And David Dawson, animated, almost camp in the Pryce role as the comic revolutionary Gethin Price, is brilliant ... There are strong performances from Billy Carter as the Belfast comic George McBrain and Michael Dylan as the well-meaning Irishman Mick Connor ... Kelly has a fidgetiness that takes away from Waters’ gravitas, which disrupts the rhythm of the first act. But Allen is superb, illuminating the performer’s instinct of a man who has found his niche and inhabits it with relish. And Paul Rider, excelling in two peripheral roles, has a natural comic knack that reminds us of the most important element of comedy, one that not even this wonderfully well-constructed, constantly stimulating play can add to: you’ve either got it or you haven’t.”

    ** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to COMEDIANS on 27 October 2009 – inc a FREE programme, a FREE drink & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A - all for only £22!! - click here to book now! **

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