The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Autumn 2009
Some plays that seem cutting-edge at the time age into classics, but others don't, and I fear that those who remember - or have heard of - Trevor Griffiths' 1975 drama as one of the major plays of its decade may wonder, after seeing this thoroughly admirable revival, what all the fuss was about.
Griffiths' genius or good fortune was to capture the cusp between the na´ve idealism of the 1960s and the equally simplistic careerism of the 1980s, at a moment when he could move and challenge audiences by asking questions about the legitimacy of ambition or the line between pragmatism and selling out - questions which, if we haven't satisfactorily answered them yet, still have lost some of their novelty and immediacy.
His vehicle is a night class of aspiring stand-up comedians (of the old mother-in-law joke sort), in which guys in dead-end day jobs take counsel from a former star.
There are a couple of Irish jokesters, a Jewish comic, a double act of brothers, and a more edgy push-the-envelope guy.
Act One shows their last class session; Act Two is a graduation performance at a local club, in the presence of a booking agent; and Act Three is the post-mortem.
The core of the play is in the second act performances. One comic is amiable but ineffective, one pushes past flop sweat to survive, one act implodes and self-destructs, and one junks all his prepared material for an inventive but totally unfunny piece of performance art that leaves everyone perplexed.
Unsurprisingly, it is the comics who sold out completely, reverting to the most generic racist and sexist gags, who impress the booker most, while the guy who bared his soul is rejected.
(And perhaps only hindsight lets us see that the comic dismissed as too low-key and unexciting actually anticipates the observational humour of the new wave of stand-ups about to appear on the scene.)
Perhaps it is merely a testament to my lost youth that I remember Jonathan Pryce as the performance artist 34 years ago as the play's revolutionary hero, the pure artist driven by rage at a world too small to appreciate him.
In this production David Dawson merely seems a confused young man with no clear artistic vision, who has chosen very much the wrong career path.
Neither Dawson nor director Sean Holmes (nor, perhaps, the script) gives us much to identify with in that character, and I found myself more in sympathy with the fatherly instructor, played by Matthew Kelly as a man who has wrestled with the same conflict between artistic purity and compromise and has accepted the costs of the choices he has made.
Without the raw energy of Pryce's original performance or the freshness and immediacy the play's issues had in 1975, Comedians comes across as a gentle and easily forgettable light comedy, barely the slightest shadow of its reputation or its power when it first appeared.
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