Lyric Hammersmith, London W6

Opened 14 October, 2009


In defiance of its title, the most crucial moments of Comedians depend on the utter absence of laughter. During the second act, when the five acts from Eddie Waters’ comedy class face try-out spots in a Mancunian club, Gethin Price’s final piece must be all brutality and menace, and the third-act post-mortem discussion between Price and Waters needs likewise to ensure that the audience are given no opportunity to relieve themselves with even an inappropriate giggle.
David Dawson and Matthew Kelly play the latter sequence masterfully: not a snigger in evidence, and scarcely even a wince at Price’s enumeration of what “truth” means (very Trevor Griffiths, very 1970s earnest socialist-realist). Their exchange is deadly serious. Kelly has left his days as a TV presenter far behind: he may not be an actor of Chekhovian nuance, but he is one who unfailingly applies himself with assiduity and conviction to whatever his role might be. As Waters, the old-school music-hall comic who discovered a social awareness and stopped laughing, he is a formidable presence, rumbling from behind his walrus moustache. Dawson is less consistent. His Gethin is a malevolent elf, which at times reminds us that the true elves of folklore are beautiful, shimmering sadists, but at others takes the form of a feyness that lets us off the hook too easily. Even the two or three muted laughs during his spot are too many.
The second act is the pivot of the piece, when we see which of the students remain true to Waters’ tutelage, which try to adapt their acts to the lowest-common-denominator demands of the agents’ representative sitting in judgement of them, and how successfully they do so: even more excruciating in its way than Gethin’s routine is the double-act of Phil and Ged Murray (played by a couple of other TV faces, Reece Shearsmith and Mark Benton), one of whom attempts to switch tracks whilst the other resists. Keith Allen is at his most astringent as the agents’ man.
In the 35 years since Comedians premiered, the comedy club circuit has transformed out of all recognition, and the play’s own argument served as a forerunner of the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s. Arguably, though, we once again need reminding of the vital importance of humour that subverts our prejudices rather than indulging them.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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