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Theatre Review No laughing matter

DENNIS POOLE sees a thought-provoking show about father and son comics whose careers are compromised by racist gaffes

End of the Pier
Park Theatre, London

 

THE PROTAGONIST of Danny Robins's new play exploring the nature and purpose of comedy within the parameters of race, class and identity is Bobby Chalk, surviving member of 1980 comedy duo Chalk and Cheese.

Chalk (Les Dennis) is now consigned to threadbare obscurity in Blackpool following a misjudged and well-publicised racist gaffe, his place in the comedic firmament inherited by his estranged son Michael Armstrong (Blake Harrison), one of the new breed of “observational” comedians.

Michael’s career trajectory is about to gain greater momentum in a new project but it's imminently compromised by an unfortunate drunken incident at the end of Blackpool pier which could reflect his father’s fate and scupper his burgeoning ambition.

He conspires with Bobby to provide a false alibi which comes to nought as a video recording of the incident emerges which threatens to go viral on social media.

Chalk and Cheese were a staple of TV comedy, regularly attracting viewing figures of 20 million at the height of their popularity and, in rueing his fall from grace, Bobby justifies his actions. Times and audiences were different then and the working class were unused to different cultures, he contends. But there was no hostile intent. “It was just a joke, it didn’t hurt anyone or kill anyone … we were being punished for using the language of the working man.”

Central to this thesis is that comedy needs victims and that audiences legitimate victimhood with their laughter and thus become complicit in the process. An interesting syllogism but only if you accept that comedy relies upon victims — it could be argued that there are countless examples of comedy where this is not the case.

Les Dennis gives a fine if predictable performance as Bobby yet it’s problematic for a real-life comedian to play a comedian on stage — it’s difficult to separate the fictional character from the one we think we know, especially one with such a well-documented back story as Dennis’s. Blake Harrison is convincing as a metropolitan alternative comedian but, reconciling his thin, towering stature with that of his much more compact father is a bit of an ask.

The cast in Hannah Price's production is fleshed out by Tala Gouevia as Michael’s wife Jenna and Nitin Ganatra as Mohammed, the focus of Michael’s drunken anger at the end of pier. He extorts the promise of a spot on his show from Michael and in the process steals the limelight with a sublime comedic monologue.

Runs until August 12, box office: parktheatre.co.uk

 

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