A Laughing Matter

April de Angelis
RNT Lyttelton

This is an affectionate homage by April de Angelis and Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint to a man whose contribution to the English stage was pivotal. David Garrick brought realism into acting. Fortuitously, he also led an eventful life and mixed in the most entertaining and well-chronicled circle.

Jason Watkins is a fine comic actor and has great fun as Garrick. We see him as the old actor-manager who is forced to decide between Goldsmith's "low" but funny She Stoops to Conquer and a forgettable and soon forgotten "comedy without jokes" by the clergyman favoured by his patron. He also has his time taken up with juggling artistic temperaments and looking after an extended theatrical family.

As a repayment for the misdemeanours of twenty years before, he is forced into making the wrong choice. As a result, he loses his fortune - and thus his theatre - to Sheridan. This is perhaps fitting, mirroring his original acquisition of the licence. There are flashbacks to the days when Charles Macklin (Nigel Cooke as another innovating actor who reinvented Shylock) had led the company. Garrick took over in a kind of pre-communist management buyout and had demonstrated little sympathy for his predecessor.

It was in this earlier time that he enjoyed life with the actresses. Peg Woffington, a lover of Lords and one of two delightfully contrasting parts played by Monica Dolan, and the bigamous Mrs Cibber (Bella Merlin) both entertain him in time-(dis)honoured fashion. Ultimately, it is the latter's need to flee to the country for a few months that will haunt Garrick and cost him his theatre twenty years later.

Some of the best scenes are those around the dining table at the Turk's Head, as the finest minds of more than one generation meet. These include the innocent 45 year old virgin, Oliver Goldsmith, with his almost impenetrable Irish accent, the boorish, melancholic Dr Johnson wonderfully brought to life by Ian Redford, Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke. Their discussions sparkle as they talk of life and literature. They are also exclusive, much to the displeasure of the spurned Garrick.

The problems faced by the theatre do not change - Where is the money to come from? How do you pick a winner? Should you sacrifice art to mammon? Will we ever see another new play produced, when the classics sell and there are no good contemporary writers?

The vast majority of the play is a pleasure to savour, with actors successfully doubling parts. None does this better than Jane Wood who has the farceur's ability to be in two places at once. A Laughing Matter also provides a pleasant accompaniment to She Stoops to Conquer which Max-Stafford-Clark is directing in repertory on the same stage.

There is one fault: the play degenerates into a seemingly irrelevant backstage farce for no very good reason, giving the impression of an 18th Century Noises Off. This should not be allowed to detract from what is a generally funny comedy about some of the greatest characters in the history of English theatre.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?