The Last Laugh

Richard Harris (adapted from an original play by Koki Mitani)
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2007)

Publicity image

I'm not sure what the Newcastle audience thought they were getting when they came to see The Last Laugh: a comedy, certainly; a chance to see two sitcom favourites definitely; but an examination of what comedy is, a developing relationship between two totally different men (indeed, men who are total opposites), set against the background of a war which is getting ever closer, probably never entered their heads. It certainly didn't enter mine.

And yet that's what The Last Laugh is. It's a comedy which gets its laughs from a rich variety of sources: character, references to works as varied as Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and One Foot in the Grave, verbal wit, satire and even a touch of slapstick, but underneath is a deeply serious play which examines the place of comedy and laughter in our lives, the clash between the military and theatrical worlds, human relationships and the effects of war. All of this played out in a series of scenes between a government censor and a writer as the latter tries to adjust his script to make it acceptable for performance.

It is set in a world which has overtones of a fascist state: the Censor (Roger Lloyd Pack) is dressed in a uniform reminsicent of a whole slew of dictatorships from Nazi Germany through Slobodan Miloševic's Serbia to Mugabe's Zimbabwe, but it is, in fact, quite timeless.

The Last Laugh is essentially a two-hander with Lloyd Pack (Only Fools and Horses) joined by Martin Freeman (The Office) as the Writer, and a nice cameo by Christopher Mellows as the Veteran. The performances are impeccable - even the timing of the badly timed gags is spot-on! It is played out in a large, cold, grey room which has clearly once been part of a library, designed by Michael Pavelka and subtly lit by Mark Henderson.

There were moments in the second half when the episodic nature of the piece led to some very short scenes with too long pauses between them diminishing the dramatic tension which had built up, but this is a minor quibble. The applause was long, sustained and warm, which suggested that the audience, no matter what they may have been expecting at the outset, had appreciated what they had been given, an intelligent, thoughtful, funny and moving play.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan