Octagon Theatre, Bolton
After an all-star revival in London just six months ago, Trevor Griffiths's 35-year-old play about a night school class for stand-up comedians is brought back to near its Manchester setting by David Thacker at Bolton Octagon.
In a beautifully authentic-looking 1975 school classroom, the moaning caretakerbefore they were retitled 'site managers' rubs the expletives from the blackboard and regards the adult student comics and their teacher with suspicion and disdain. Teacher Eddie Waters was a skilled comedian himself until he suddenly lost his drive to perform and started teaching instead. This was a time before alternative comedy when 'comedian' meant someone who stood behind a microphone and told joke after joke about subjects that we would now consider rather old-fashioned or that make the recent press scandals about things said by modern comedians seem rather tame.
Waters tries to breed into his comics a sensitivity to what is behind the jokes ("Most comics feed prejudice... the best ones illuminate them") and to weed out the hate and the anger concealed behind gags about women and different races. However when he brings his nemesis, a southern club owner called Bert Challenor looking for acts to sign up, to view his charges and their final performances on the course, they all have to make a last-minute decision whether to stick with Eddie's principals or fall back on the old comedy of racial and sexual stereotypes in order to get a job.
Griffiths's play is about comedy and therefore is packed full of jokes, but whether it can be called a comedy in itself would be a good subject for an 'A' Level essay. Set against a backdrop of political turmoil, industrial unrest and high unemployment in the mid-seventies, these men are mostly employed in declining industries and are looking for a way out through comedy, and so there is a sense of desperation behind their eagerness to perform. Their role models are the hot young performers on TV's The Comedians whose material was based largelyalthough by no means exclusivelyon well-worn stereotypes of nagging wives, frightening mothers-in-law, the stupid Irish, the money-grabbing Jews and so on.
The brilliance of the play is how it manipulates and divides its audience, as some may be shocked at what others have laughed at and then later be uncomfortable at what they have laughed at themselves.
The realism of Helen Goddard's school set extends through to the performances in David Thacker's nicely-paced production. For the second act, the stage is transformed into an equally-authentic stage of a 70s working men's club with a battered upright piano in the corner and old Strand stage lights overhead before being transformed back into the classroom during the second interval for the post mortem.
Kieren Hill gets the prominent role of Gethin Price, the forerunner of an alternative comedian with the angry punk ethic of a young Alexei Sayle, and gives an intense and believable performance of a part that becomes key in putting across the real meanings of the play in the last scene. His act on stage in the club is really performance arta postmodern deconstruction of contemporary comic themes and lines and their precedentsand although bewildering and incomprehensible, it is brilliantly constructed and performed.
Richard Moore gives a lovely, sensitive portrayal of tutor Eddie Waters opposite John Branwell as uncompromising club owner Bert Challenor who knows what his customers like and doesn't want any visionaries to give them something new. Brendan Foster gives a great opening standup performance as Irish comic Mick Connor who sticks to his act, and Colin Connor is convincing as Northern Irish comic George McBrain who compromises. Sévan Stephan is very good as the Jewish local club owner with more than a passing resemblance in his manner and performance to the late Bernard Manning. As double act Night And Day, Mark Letheren and Huw Higginson, are brothers Phil and Ged Murray, one of whom wants to change the act at the last minute (and tries to do so during it) and the other wants to stick to his principals or maybe go solo.
Even the smaller roles are sensitively played, with Howard Crossley's funny but still real pairing of the caretaker and the club pianist, Russell Richardson as the club secretary and Simon Nagra as the lost Mr Patel.
David Thacker has created a wonderful production of a play that was well worth a revival, not because it is timely for superficial reasonsyou'd be hard-pressed to find a time in the last 35 years when a comedian hasn't said something for a tabloid to feign offence at on someone else's behalf to create a headlinebut because it is a really good play featuring intelligent debate about how we portray our society through comedy and the real meanings and motivations behind that portrayal. The Octagon has stretched its resources to find a cast of eleven actors, but all give great performances in a production that is well worth seeing.
To 8th May
Reviewer: David Chadderton