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A CurtainUp London Review
Trevor Griffith’s play is about what made a stand up comic before the 1980s when stand up comedy became the new Rock ‘n Roll with the improvised Comedy Store type of alternative comedy. Comedians is set in a school used for evening classes for adults. Once on the comedy circuit as a professional, Eddie Waters (Matthew Kelly) is coaching a group of men, not working at present in show business, who want to be signed up by London agent Bert Challoner (Keith Allen). Eddie Waters is against the cheap laugh, the one at the expense of people which uses a stereotype, like much of the British stand up comedy of the 1950s and 60s, such as Les Dawson with his offensive mother in law jokes. Waters has encouraged the development of a freer comic style but the applecart is upset by the arrival of Challoner who tells the comics, "We are not missionaries. We are suppliers of laughter."
The second act sees all the men put on their act in a club, where the main attraction of the evening is a game of Bingo. Some have hastily improvised routines that they think will appeal to the agent. Others stick to their planned act and pay the price. There is a piano and pianist for those who want accompaniment and a curtain backdrop of ruched and swagged clover pink satin. In the third act, the men return to the classroom for a feedback session from Challoner together with his announcement of who he will sign.
We realise how serious some comics are when they are not performing and how often it is pain which has set them on the road to making people laugh. Most of the acts in the middle scenes are unfunny. Mick Connor (Michael Dylan) talks about what it is like being an Irishman in England, sharp suited Sammy Samuels’ (Simon Kunz) repertoire of Jewish jokes degenerates into racist jokes and Ulsterman George McBrain (Billy Carter) mines his marriage for anti-wife material. The double act of milkman Ged Murray (Mark Benton) with his brother Phil (Reece Shearsmith) as the ventriloquist goes wonderfully wrong as Ged stops being the oversized ventriloquist’s dummy and puts his brother on his knee instead. The sight of Phil trying to pull his brother onstage concealed within a huge laundry hamper was reminiscent of great clowning but I wasn’t sure whether this was their intention or not. The Murray brothers die a stage death and are mortified. Finally there is the youngest member of the class, Gethin Price (David Dawson) whose eerie, white faced mime act has us all mystified.
The acting performances are all wonderful. Matthew Kelly as Eddie Walters spends most of the middle act with his head in his hands despairing at the efforts of his class. David Dawson is ethereal as the original Gethin, really off the wall, in the part created originally by Jonathan Pryce. I last saw David Dawson as a memorable Smike in the Chichester version of Nicholas Nickleby. Mark Benton is brilliant as the milkman warring with his brother, an excellent Reece Shearsmith. As the dummy Ged had eyes painted on his eyelids to uncanny effect as he blinks. I liked too Keith Allen’s Homburg hatted, Crombie coated, show business agent who calls Gethin’s act "aggressively unfunny". Eddie, left alone with Gethin tells him he was brilliant but ugly. The closing scene of the play has Eddie describing what it was that made him condemn anti-Semite jokes.
The side events are the funniest in the play with the unscheduled arrival of Mr Patel (Kulvinder Ghir) and his sack of meat looking for an English class, and the School keeper (Paul Rider) in his muttering, incensed, erasing of the chalked graffiti a naughty class have left on the revolving blackboard. Incidentally the joke Mr Patels tells Eddie is the best of the evening and Mr Patel wants to sign up for next term’s class!
Trevor Griffiths’ play has been compared with John Osborne’s earlier play The Entertainer. Comedians is the kind of drama which lingers in your psyche as you reflect on the nature of comedy and the price of artistry.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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