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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Lyric Hammersmith


  Billy Carter and David Dawson/ Ph: Helen Banks

What to make of a 1975 play that remains on the UK A-level syllabus, but which is also firmly rooted in the Bernard Manning-era of yesteryear, in which flat-capped men worked the working men’s club circuits with jokes about the Irish and blacks? Trevor Griffiths’ play, which transferred to Broadway and made a star out of Jonathan Pryce, is an excellent one: a frequently very funny attack on the political and social codes embedded within the language of popular entertainment, and centering on six budding comics honing their craft at a Manchester evening class in the 1970s.
Their tutor is former music hall star Eddie Waters (a dog-eared old idealist beautifully played by Matthew Kelly), who firmly believes that jokes enforcing negative stereotypes are jokes that also promote fear and loathing, and that a good comedian should always challenge an audience rather than confirm old prejudices. But then along comes Bert Challoner (a bow tie-wearing Keith Allen, oozing whiskery disdain), an agent up from London to see them each perform, who has no truck with such idealism, and whose old school faith in comedy as entertainment forces a few of the comics to suddenly panic and change their act—apart from Gethin Price (David Dawson), a solitary political subversive who delivers a terrifying Marcel Marceau-esque slice of punk mime dripping in class hatred.
On the one hand, this is a straightforward argument: funny non-racist jokes are fine; racist jokes are bad. We all know that, and in today’s era in which alternative comedy has become the mainstream, Griffiths’ masculine, conservative, flared jeans-and-cigarette-smoke-filled setting feels like a dispatch from a vanished era. So much so that a double act that goes disastrously wrong when one half abruptly decides to tell a joke about a Pakistani (don’t ask) almost feels, in these somewhat more ironic times, like an anachronistic pastiche of political correctness.  
But Sean Holmes' impeccably acted, utterly faithful production also reminds us that, while audiences’ tastes have thankfully matured, some of the best comedy thrives on taboos. And while Gethin’s electric set piece, in which he draws blood from the breast of a middle class female mannequin, hanging on the arm of an equally well to do male suitor, is a punch-to-the-gut howl of anger from an eternally alienated outsider, it’s also clear that the revolution and popular entertainment don’t necessarily make good bed fellows. For Griffiths’ play is also concerned with art versus commerce as well as art’s limited capacity for changing the world, and Holmes’ production invests both with a high-voltage timelessness.
Dawson is mesmerizing as Price, combining the fey delicacy of a ballet dancer with the shaven headed nihilism of the punk for whom art is a form of destruction as well as creation, while Reece Shearsmith and Mark Benton as the self imploding sibling double act provide a moment of genuinely ugly danger. Griffith’s play may be showing its age around the edges. But it also makes you laugh out loud while making you think about what you are laughing at, and why.


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