Review – The Comedians – Lyric Hammersmith

by

It was with some trepidation that I headed to the Lyric Hammersmith to see The Comedians. A three hour running time has become a considerable burden to me on a school night and when I’d initially booked the tickets I hadn’t realized seeing the show was likely to wreck me for work the next day. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it at all, and really didn’t right up until I sat in my seat and looked at the program; I was there because the West End Whingers were going, and they tend to have a magical ability to sniff out good shows. In fact, if it hadn’t been for them, I’d never have managed to get in to see Enron. They’re also great company, though I’d brought my own posse along with me (admittedly in part so my American visitor Irene could meet Andrew and Phil). But, well, the Lyric has this thing where the first week of a show (usually) they do tickets at £10, so I figured, hey, if it’s bad, I’ll leave at the interval, and, gosh, I even have two different intervals to pick from! I also knew in my heart of hearts that if the show was good I wouldn’t regret the lost sleep.

First interval came around and I was still a bit on the fence. The show is about six men who have been going to night school to learn how to be comedians. I saw in the set up a bit of “The Pitman Painters,” with a lovable teacher (Matthew Kelly) who just wants to pass on a bit of his learning to a roomful of “characters,” with likely life lessons to follow at the end to send us all home with a smile. I figured the story would be mostly playing off of the comedy of the various “types” in the class, with a bunch of laughs in the middle during the “now we show our stuff at the comedy club” act before the heartwarming finale. (No, I didn’t read the program.) But I was wholly confused by what the types were supposed to be, as the accents were completely meaningless to me. I wasn’t able to tell the Northern Irish guy from the Republic of Ireland guy or actually from … well, any of the other guys except for the one who was supposed to be Jewish (and what was funny about that also passed me by). Being American was really working against me, and I wasn’t getting their casual jokes at all. I felt at a complete cultural loss. I was also kind of irritated by the overacting of Gethin Price, who as “teacher’s pet” David Dawson kept forgetting to interact with the other characters and instead kept acting toward the fourth wall. (“Hello​! You’re very sexy in an Alan Cumming kind of way, but would you please stop acting like you know we’re all out here and get on with being in the play? It ruins my developing fascination with you.”)

The one thing I did understand, and that got me back in the door after the end of first interval, in the face of the exhaustion I’d have to face the following day, was the drama that developed when the judge for the performances (Bert Challoner) appeared just after it was revealed that he and the teacher were arch rivals who had completely different ideas of how to be funny. Suddenly the students, who all wanted professional careers, were faced with failing their real test: getting a job. After getting a speech from him about what a comedian’s approach ought to be, suddenly it became clear that every one of them was going to try to fix his routine to better please the judge.

This conflict made me quite enthused to see Act Two, in which the students one by one (well, and once by two) went up on stage and did their best to wow the judge. This is when it finally became clear to me that I was watching an extremely good group of actors, because they were actors, not standup comedians, and yet for each of their acts I totally bought into what they were doing and the tension they were feeling. The best of the acts for me was the two-man routine Reece Shearsmith (as Phil Murray) and Mark Benton (as Ged Murray) did, when suddenly Phil, who’d been “the one who wasn’t funny” earlier, turned on his brother Ged and insisted he tell a racist joke that went completely against the philosophy of their professor – but that he felt sure would amuse the judge. The power of the moment when his jovial, gentle brother turned to him and said, “No, YOU tell the joke” and then physically moved him to a place where he would have to … words fail me. It was pure theater. I completely bought the characters and the situation. Admittedly, at the very beginning of the act, all I thought about was how pretty Michael Dylan’s blue eyes were, which wasn’t really about getting into his character so much as getting into him, but grab your pleasures where you will, I say. Anyway, by this act I was sold on the play, and the whole question of how to get a decent night’s sleep was moot; I was making the Ultimate Sacrifice and was going to call a cab after the show.

During the second intermission, I had a long conversation with an old guy who’s seen the show in its original incarnation in the 70s. According to him, the jokes the guys tell during the second act actually just aren’t funny, and people back them knew it. He said he was really surprised that people were laughing during the performance. I was, too, but I was confused because to me they almost all of the jokes seemed really offensive – I don’t see where being Irish or Catholic or Jewish is a comedy item and there’s no laughs for me in a joke about beating your wife up in a bar. But per Old Guy, this kind of humor was actually standard standup material in those days, especially up north (where this play was set), so the format itself was unsurprising – only the jokes were really flat. Of course there’s the question of the act the teacher’s pet performed, about which I’ll say little other than I thought about it during the De Frutos catastrophe the next night, but that had to be its own special moment.

Act three was, well, really not the heartwarming huggy-feely takeaway I was expecting and a lot more of the “this is going to get dark” my husband anticipated. There is a bit of a message about artistic integrity, but the whole thing is couched in a rather nauseating story that ends in a Nazi death camp, so any chance of a “feel good” is blown out of the water. Still, as we all walked out, a bit dazed and blasted, my thought was: what an amazing ensemble cast I just saw perform. Nearly three straight hours and I didn’t begrudge them a minute; once act two started I was bought in all the way. While I was too culturally confused to be able to see it in the big stars and lights the West End Whingers did, I’d definitely say this is a show worth catching.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, October 11th, 2009. It continues through November 14th. I ate at Akash Tandoor beforehand and can highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo plate.)

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4 Responses to “Review – The Comedians – Lyric Hammersmith”

  1. Peter Says:

    Why do you publish my email address on your page ? We have never met or corresponded. In any case having said that it is required you say it will not be published

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Hi,

      Can you tell me where your email has been posted as I have no idea where you are seeing it. I have a few Peters who’ve made comments here. Thanks. Also publishing the email is the default of the site that I’m hosted on, not me. Not sure how to fix it.

  2. peter Says:

    Hi

    Thanks. I can’t find it now so it has clearly been corrected. No harm done. Peter.

  3. almost witty Says:

    I went to see it tonight, and just marvelled at the central quandry, and peering into 1970s Northern comedy club culture was like a whole different galactic lifestyle.

    A fascinating play!

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