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Comedians by Trevor Griffiths at Bolton Octagon

Published by: Caroline May on 19th Apr 2010 | View all blogs by Caroline May
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A text for tonight.  Perhaps we can’t all be Max Bygraves.  But we can try.

You’re an aspiring stand-up comedian; you’ve been coming to this evening class in a rundown FE college in Manchester every week for months; you’ve absorbed the wise words of the tutor, one-time bill-topper Eddie Waters, “The Lancashire Lad”; you’ve taken his advice about being honest, true, compassionate and working through the laughs not for the laughs; you’ve honed your act, practised at home, learned the lines: now it’s the big night when you’re performing an open spot at the local Working Men’s Club and secretly hoping to impress that agent from The Smoke, Bert Challenor, who’s in the audience supposedly just to assess your work but who might offer you a route to the big time and an escape from your miserable life. 

And then Bert gives you a tip-off: all he wants is gags. 

So do you scrap your act and try to remember as many near-the-knuckle one-liners and Christmas cracker jokes as possible in an attempt to ingratiate yourself with the man handing out the contracts?  Or do you stay loyal to your art, and Eddie?

Although Trevor Griffiths’ 1975 play is astonishingly specific in its period and locale, it couldn’t be more topical at a time when the biggest names in stand-up can sell out arenas, and Manchester is teeming with classes ranging from the improv games of Comedy Sportz to a BA (Hons) Comedy: Writing and Performance at Salford University.  And although the politically correct alternative comedians of the 1980s were supposed to have killed off the bigoted world view epitomised by Bernard Manning, not only have those frilly-shirted, bow-tied gag-merchants come back to enjoy a post-modern popularity, but the new breed of stand-ups are constantly crossing the lines of taste and decency with their “ironic” reclaiming of the offensive.

The playwright assembles a group of comic stereotypes, including a Jew and two types of Irishman, just like the set-up for a shaggy dog story, but David Thacker’s excellent actors transform them into completely rounded human beings while retaining the flavour of their archetypal origins. 

John Branwell is brilliant as Cockney wide-boy agent Bert Challenor, a salty cynic who believes in aiming for the lowest common denominator, and Richard Moore makes a fine contrast as the lugubrious and slightly tragic tutor Eddie. 

While all the comic wannabees are clearly drawn and well-detailed, Mark Letheren as Phil Murray, the born straight man, gives the most unselfish and thankless performance of the evening; for a gifted actor to take half-funny lines and kill them stone dead takes real skill as well as self-sacrifice.

Even the tiny roles are a delight: Howard Ward doubles up as the grumpy college Caretaker and virtuosic club pianist, and Simon Nagra plays lost student Mr Patel like a bemused Lou Costello.

Kieran Hill as the iconic Gethin Price is big, beautiful and just a touch camp.  When he reveals his Mohican-style shaved head and thick white greasepaint, the intended homage to Grock the clown smacks more of a character who has escaped from Taboo: The Boy George Musical.  At this point you realise that his turn isn’t comedy but performance art, and that even if he never plays Hulme Hippodrome he only has to wait for the Greenroom to open 1983 to be showered with Arts Council funding.

Helen Goddard’s design cleverly switches from a frighteningly accurate reconstruction of a down-at-heel 1970s classroom, (even the square metal dustbin is an authentic period piece) to a seedy northern club with a low-rent compère (Russell Richardson).

Seeing Comedians is like coming across the final episode of a six-part sit-com where all the characters have long been established and the grand climax has no context or emotional resonance for the casual viewer; and for a play about comedy it’s surprisingly unfunny.  However David Thacker’s enjoyable, well-paced and superbly acted production is highly recommended - for the drama, if not the laughs.

 

Comedians is on at Bolton Octagon until Saturday 8 May 2010

Tickets: from £9.00

Eves: Mon-Sat @ 7.30

Matinees: Fri 16, Sat 17, Mon 19, Sat 24 and Wed 28 Apr @ 2pm  

www.octagonbolton.co.uk

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