No fictional examination of stage comics and death can ever hope to achieve the bizarre and disconcerting pitch of the late Tommy Cooper's demise – literally, leaving them laughing. In their latest collaboration Get Off My Foot!, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson attempt simultaneously to muse on the offstage agonies of funny men, to acknowledge various figures and double acts from the heyday of variety and to exploit their conjoint talent for creating work which mixes laughs with sporadic weird shivers.
From the beginning, Dougie Mason and Stanley Hardcastle make a strange double act, not least because Dougie is dead (the show also recognises the influence of Randall And Hopkirk Deceased). A series of flashbacks recount key moments in their personal and professional relationships, enlightening the amnesiac Dougie as to how and why he died. Dougie (McDermott) is revealed as the demon of the pair: callous and single-minded, not hesitating to fake a terminal disease if it will help him talk his way inside the sequined leotard of the new girl in the chorus. Tensions between him and diligent but unambitious "nice lad" Stanley come to a head when the alluring but independent Angel (Linda Dobell) joins the act.
McDermott and Simpson's slightly disconcerting visual imagination is given form by Alice Purcell's design. The only clearly defined location is a trompe-l'oeil rooming-house upstage, whose collapsible furniture and missing walls offer enormous scope for both gags (Dougie proves he is a ghost by walking through the fourth wall) and violence. Supernatural effects are enacted using scale models of the house and puppet protagonists, and are executed with a wry self-consciousness which, by deflating such moments, paradoxically makes them easier for an audience to swallow.
The snatches of Dougie and Stan's stage act (on which variety comedian Len Lowe acted as adviser) are polished but unexceptional examples of the form. Programme notes make much of the show's debt to 1940s Lancastrian jester Frank Randle: his shade is written into the show as the guardian angel of dead comics, and even its title derives from one of his catch-phrases. Randle, though, has long been a fashionable name for heritage-minded comedians to drop, and Get Off My Foot! is both more and less than a full-blown tribute either to him in particular or to past comedy acts in general.
Like Dougie Mason, the piece itself exists in a strange theatrical limbo. McDermott and Simpson's devised, clowning style is more familiar in a studio setting, but the conventions of variety and the sheer physical resources necessary for the production require a theatre the shape and at least the size of Nottingham's Playhouse. When clowning company The Right Size made a foray into middle-scale shows recently, they found that the change of size coarsened and attenuated both comic and sinister effect in their shows, and have now triumphantly returned to productions at the top end of the studio bracket. Get Off My Foot! walks a fine line between the two areas; the fact that it holds its own (and then some) testifies to its creators' precision in realising their ideas. After all, bashing someone around the head with a frying pan can be a surprisingly delicate matter.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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