Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Only When I Laugh or A Class Act

Jack Shepherd
Love&Madness
Arcola Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

The variety act is a dying art form but there was once a time when folk who had very little money would spend what they did have on a trip to the local theatre and catch the variety acts that were in town.

Written by and starring Jack Shepherd (of Wycliffe notoriety) Only When I Laugh takes us back to a time when the most unlikely characters toured up and down the country together entertaining the locals in whatever town they happened to be in. The years after WWII were not easy times, epecially in the north of England, which is where we are on the night we join this mismatched group of entertainers. There was no central heating, no fridges, no washing machines but there was mass unemployment. The variety show was an opportunity to escape from the harsh realities of life and sit back to enjoy a song, a laugh or watching someone do something strange with balloons, whatever happened to be on the bill that night. However on this particular occasion there is more drama happening off stage than there is on.

The band is a no-show for rehearsals and there is a new singer in town who, unbeknown to legendary comedian Reg Henson, has kicked him off the number one spot. There are acts having affairs and there's an old busy-body milling around trying to ensure that no obscenities make their way into the acts.

The performances cannot be faulted. Each cast member is superb as they capture the essence of characters from this era beautifully. Yet despite this, it is not a captivating story. There are certainly funny shenanigans to enjoy such as Jim Bywater as Reg Henson throwing a drunken hissy fit and demolishing his room upon discovering that he has been relocated to the number two dressing room. Stephanie Thomas is delightful as naïve Rita Atkinson (half of the twin tap dancing sensation) who has been foolishly seduced by the up and coming (and married) comedian Stanley Hinchcliffe, and of course Jack Shepherd is brilliant as always as he tries to control this unruly rabble. However as a show it feels a little old fashioned. It's pleasant enough but in the same way that an episode of Last of the Summer Wine is on a Sunday night.

Perhaps this show is more appealing to a certain generation but it's a shame that this production about variety acts is not quite as entertaining as they once were.

Running until 2nd May 2009

Sandra Giorgetti reviewed this production at the Greenwich Theatre

Reviewer: Rachel Sheridan