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Theatre review: The Comedians/Bolton Octagon

Joan Davies on Trevor Griffiths' mid-70s drama about comedy

Published on April 20th 2010.

Theatre review: The Comedians/Bolton Octagon

THISis a great night out at the theatre. Bolton Octagon’s current production, a revival of Trevor Griffiths’ mid-70s play The Comedians provides laughs, food for thought, and superb performances.

When this play appeared, casual racism, misogyny and homophobia were at the centre of a large tranche of mainstream comedy, and anyone loudly questioning this was regarded as an outsider. Now the position is almost reversed.

The plot centres on a comedy evening class, an unlikely scenario perhaps, but Griffiths knew of one in a pub room in Manchester. It’s the last session of the course. The all-male and largely working-class students prepare, perform and evaluate over three acts. It’s an important evening, with a performance in front of a camel-coated agent from London in a working men’s club in Grey Mare Lane, Beswick.

Their teacher, once the highly respected comedian Eddie Waters, believes that comedy is art, liberating and capable of producing real change. The opposite view is held by the agent, Bert Challenor.

To him comedy is escapism and the good comedian is one who lines up his targets, almost always his targets, and picks them off one-by-one with a rapid fire technique. Jews, joke; women, joke; blacks, joke; queers, joke; Irish, joke.

Most of the apprentices see comedy as their route to success, out of the stultifying boredom of their everyday jobs. They admire Waters' comedic skills, value what he has shared with them and don’t want to let him down, but they’re about to move into the commercial world. They’ll no longer be classmates but market-place rivals.

When they learn that their assessor will be handing out work they each have a decision to make. Do they keep their act loyal to Walters’ principles, or junk what they’re rehearsed and play to the known preferences of this new and powerful audience. Who will make it onto a new career ladder? And what price might they have paid?

Setting up this dramatic tension allows playwright Griffiths to explore core comedy issues: What makes people laugh? Are there any boundaries beyond which comedy should not step? Are there any unacceptable targets? Can comedy be regarded as an art form or is it simply a branch of entertainment? Can comedy survive as a valid comment in the face of horrendous inhumanity?

The universal nature of these questions has seen the play translated into 20 languages and maintain its vibrancy despite its clear location in 1970s North Manchester. The structure of the play is conventional, yet the play brings surprises at many turns.

There is no weak link in an excellent cast, many well-known to local audiences. Among them, Howard Crossley deploys excellent comic timing in the minor roles of school caretaker and club-style pianist. Mark Letheren and Huw Higginson, who appeared together in the Octagon’s previous production 'And Did Those Feet..' work a wonderful double act as the Murray Brothers, full of surprises and laughs. The London agent is played by West Yorkshire actor John Branwell. He’s convincingly smug as he lords it over the locals with his boast of always enjoying his stay at the Midland when he’s in Manchester and convincingly business-like as he dispenses efficient advice and selected contracts before departing

Richard Moore plays Eddie Waters so assuredly that he doesn’t seem to be acting. Most of the time he’s softly spoken, yet every word reaches the audience with clarity. He conveys a man of genuine ideals, kindness and generosity of spirit, yet carrying a sadness that he can’t quite dispense. Kieran Hill is superb in the demanding role of Gethin Price and the audience holds its breath.

Helen Goddard’s design is convincing. The first and third act are set in a 70s school-room with scruffy desks and chairs to not quite match. A clock on the wall shows real time - both the play and the class start at 7.30pm – an innovation I sometimes wish had caught on at the theatre. The second act takes place in the Working Men’s Club. My companion thought it resembled Manchester’s Press Club, while someone giggled that the stage set was more glamorous. Just one criticism: the third act chips should smell of vinegar. Costumes and hairdos are authentic and therefore largely hideous.

The director, David Thacker has done an excellent job. The individual characters and human interest aspects are well-conveyed without getting in the way of the central purpose of the writer which is to question the politics of comedy.

Throughout you’re certain where the writer’s sympathies lie, but you don’t feel as if you’re being hit over the head with his views.

The comedy world has certainly changed. When this play appeared, casual racism, misogyny and homophobia were at the centre of a large tranche of mainstream comedy, and anyone loudly questioning this was regarded as an outsider. Now the position is almost reversed. We can overstate the contrast and actually the most loved comedians of the time were Morecambe and Wise. We mock the strong,” said Eric Morecambe, “never the weak.” But the play may receive a different reading from a young audience.

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