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Comedians

Trevor Griffiths
Lyric, Hammersmith
(2009)

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Trevor Griffiths is enjoying a theatrical resurgence in London after a long period where his works were rarely staged. Following his new play A New World at Shakespeare's Globe, comes Sean Holmes' revival of possibly his best-known work for this medium - he did also write the screenplay of Reds with Warren Beatty.

With two intervals, the three contrasting acts stretch to around three hours and analyse the nature of comedy and, by extension, human attitudes and behaviour.

The opening act shows a class of six would-be comics in the final stages of grooming for their first public appearance. Their teacher is a lugubrious ex-comic who internalises his own bitterness, bringing to mind the classic vision of a tearful clown.

Eddie Waters is embodied by a deliberately sedate and very convincing Matthew Kelly in a role first played by Jimmy Jewell, for whom the part might have been written - but the programme notes tell us wasn't.

Eddie may be a masterly, deeply caring educator but lives the old maxim that those who can, do and those who can't, teach. His philosophy is deep, far too much so for the sextet of assorted Mancunians who, with a single exception, would rather quip than think or analyse.

They are the stuff that jokes are made of. A Jew, Irishmen from either side of the border, chalk and cheese brothers and a suicide waiting to happen.

Almost at the same time, this disparate group manages to become a unit and shows its desperate fragility as the jokers build to their not even 15 minutes of fame.

The second act is an object lesson in how not to deliver stand-up routines, trotting out enough bad jokes to offend almost every grouping that ever lived in the days before PC was invented. The six men plunge to comic deaths, having been fazed by Eddie's nemesis Bert Challoner, a cockney comedian turned talent spotter played by Keith Allen (yes, it has to be said, Lily's dad).

This is also where several of the actors shine, especially the two Irishmen Michael Dylan and Billy Carter, a very witty comic milkman Mark Benton; and Simon Kunz as Sammy Samuels, whose nerves are eerily visible.

After the second interval they face the brutal dissection of Challoner. This is nothing though compared to the sheer pain that they induce in their mentor, a man who truly cares about this bunch of losers hoping beyond hope for a better life of A list clubs, TV and adulation.

The final section, in which Matthew Kelly debates life issues with the moving David Dawson's Gethin Price, an anarchic, post-post-modern comic several decades ahead of his time, played by Jonathan Pryce first time around, makes the evening.

At last, we begin to understand why Trevor Griffiths wrote the play and Sean Holmes revived it (with a starry cast that also includes TV favourites Reece Sheersmith and Kulvinder Ghir) for his opening directing job as Artistic Director at the Lyric.

While the comedians and their jokes are intermittently funny, the debate about the purpose of comedy and its place in a world that can engender a Holocaust is truly moving.

35 years on, Comedians looks very dated, like Victoria Wood's Talent. The difference here from that light comedy is that, although it struggles to justify three hours, at its best Trevor Griffiths' play makes one contemplate life's most serious issues amidst the laughter.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher