Jack Shepherd is not a man to disguise how deeply he thinks and feels about his preoccupations. In a chance meeting after the massed pipe-band parade during last year's Edinburgh Fringe, I found that his conversation was not about the spectacle itself, but of his sensation that the ghosts of the Scottish military dead had also been marching that afternoon. His jazz play Chasing The Moment (seen in London last September) bogged itself down by allotting to each member of the band an oratorical "solo" on the philosophy and ideology of jazz.
Comic Cuts, set in a dressing room in the Leeds Empire during the last days of variety, drifts in its final stages into the same strategy, with a debate between a drunken, terrifying comedian in decline and a councillor from the city's Watch Committee on the roles of smut and hostility in comedy. In this phase of the play Shepherd seems to want to translate the dialectic of Trevor Griffiths's Comedians back in time a couple of decades. His writing here is thoughtful and passionate, but heavy with the incense of Author's Message.
He builds up to this point by peopling the play with a motley collection of acts on the circuit, a fretful manager and a star crooner imported from London to fill a sudden gap on the bill. Backstage philanderings, petty tussles over status and the hollowness at the centre of the variety turn's existence are all brought out. The action opens with a junior comedian frantically groping a tap-dancer in the empty dressing room, and simultaneously to the climactic exchange between Reg and the councillor, betrayed wife Eleanor Foley is given a wonderfully subtle speech of marital despair.
The script is peppered with almost Alan Bennett-like observations (most of which, mysteriously, seemed to pass the audience by on the first press night), and in Reg Henson Shepherd has created a glorious, cynical terror whose act grows bluer as his alcohol intake rises through the week. Waking in his own vomit from a paralytic stupor half-way through the first Monday show, Reg casts around for his bottle, only to be told, "You drank the whisky." "All of it?" "Yes." "No wonder I keep thinking it's Thursday."
Gavin Richards makes an excellent Reg. Richards is always at his best playing vicious, unhinged types on whom he can casually go to town and leave the rest of the cast struggling to keep up with him. His fellows here turn in adequate performances for the most part, but are left rather to fend for themselves by Jonathan Church's unassuming direction. Where Shepherd's script introduces all the required elements but subsequently leaves them to tick over until it reaches its moments of truth, Church could have imbued matters with a more dynamic sense of interaction. Instead, we see the carefully plotted mechanics of a number of narrative strands, but seldom sense a driving spirit at their core, other than that of Shepherd's philosophising.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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