The End of the Pier
Park Theatre 200, 2nd August 2018
Comic gold is not universal. We all have a different take on what is funny. The casting of Les Dennis in Extras (S1 E4) as a washed up, needy TV star in a pantomime, whose young fiancee is copping off with a stagehand, was a stroke of genius by its creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Specifically the scene where he is literally baring his all to Gervais in the changing room is as funny as funny gets. As it turns out this was a turning point in Les’s life and career lifting him out of a dark period after a marital break-up (visible on the execrable Big Brother apparently). Ironic too that Messrs Gervais and Merchant’s own comedy oeuvres have been largely downhill since then.
Anyway it means that Jolly Les is surely the go to casting choice if you are writing and producing a play about a washed up comedian whose career comes crashing down after making a racist joke. Which is exactly what writer and director Danny Robins and Hannah Price did with The End of the Pier. More than enough to reel me and the SO in to seeing it.
The joy is that this is actually a pretty good play. Funny, insightful, well structured and with some strong performances and not just from Les. His character Bobby was part of an, unsurprisingly, Northern double act, Chalk and Cheese. From working men’s clubs through to Saturday Night TV stardom they had it all into the 1980s. Eddie Cheese, now dead, was an unrepentant racist bully but it is Bobby who ends up telling the (unheard) joke, perhaps against his better nature, which catapults their careers, just when the audience, thanks to alternative comedy, is moving on. The twist is that Bobby’s son, Michael, played by Blake Harrison, (you know Neil from The Inbetweeners), is also now a household name “observational” comedian, with a partner Jenna, (the very talented Tala Gouviea), who is a TV comedy commissioning executive and fully paid up member of the LME.
Now as I write this I can see that the set-up does all sound a bit predictable. But the way in which Mr Robins goes on to develop the set-up is anything but. The politics of comedy, (and race and class), are smartly pulled to pieces, the relationship between father and son is similarly dissected and there is a brilliantly funny ending courtesy of Nitin Ganatra, who plays Mohammed, a schoolmate of Michael who comes back to haunt him. OK so there are a couple of clunky McGuffins to facilitate some plot switchbacks, and Michael’s character turns a little too adroitly on a attitudinal sixpence towards the end, but no matter, as once it gets going this is thoroughly entertaining stuff. Danny Robins is not the only TV/radio sitcom writer to be commissioned for the Park stage but on the strength of this I bet he gets another crack at a full length play. He has an ear for dialogue and could certainly succeed with subtler fare. Mind you I have to admit that some of the funniest lines in the play are Bobby’s cringey old-skool one-liners.
Hannah Price, (who I think worked with no less than John Malkovich on his The Good Canary at the Kingston Rose last year), directs with vigour and does a pretty guide job of patching over the contrivances and James Turner’s set, which shifts from Bobby’s Blackpool flat to backstage at the studio where Michael’s show is filmed, has a real flair for detail. As an aside the designers for productions at the Park seem to me to always be very well served by those who put their sets together so a big shout out to the chippies and the rest of the team. In our performance there was a problem with the sound but the team soldiered on regardless and came up with a couple of belts and braces solutions when it mattered.
There are better plays which address the nature of comedy, Trevor Griffith’s masterful Comedians and Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny for example, but this is a very entertaining, if occasionally overly earnest, addition.