Barry Cryer And His Imaginary Friends

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

If only all birthday parties could be just like this. Having written for everybody from Tommy Cooper to Richard Pryor, Barry Cryer was able to count on a startling array of comedy and musical talent for his 70th birthday celebrations, with every performance underscored with genuine sentiments of love and deference.

For those unsure why that duffer from I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue deserved such birthday fireworks, a short video montage quickly but effectively argued his case. Composed of television extracts and interviews, the film could only hint at the huge dimensions of Cryer’s back catalogue. Not that many needed convincing of the man’s legacy.

The show opened with Cryer collaborator Ronnie Golden’s witty band Ronnie & the Rex, then, to the hugely warm reception he deserves, Cryer joined them for the first of many collaborative songs. Even at 70, he possesses a remarkable singing voice and is seemingly pleased to show it off to anyone prepared to listen.

As the back curtain descended, hiding the band for a first half emphasising the comedy, Cryer amply displayed his other magnificent talent: stand-up. With a collection of one-liners and other short gags, he demonstrated a turn of phrase that most comics would roll over and beg for, being able to set up a joke before twisting it in another direction for the punchline.

Much of it was based upon his age – and that of the evening’s other acts – showing a good humour that, if anything, has increased with years. ‘It’s a night of friends and family’, he states, and so it’s a good thing for the audience that he surrounds himself with some wonderful talents.

Jeremy Hardy, the evening’s self proclaimed ‘spring-chicken’, having only recently turned 40, opened by light-heartedly mocking the birthday boy (as pretty much every other act on the bill will later do) before launching into his trademarked political satire. The subject matter was slightly incongruous with the evening’s frolicsome tone, but still performed with the same inherent sense of fun.

Arthur Smith acted as compere for the remainder of the first half, effortlessly funny in his usual offbeat manner and seemingly having the time of his life. "’re you thinking what I’m thinking?’ he asks the audience several times, providing each different punchline with a grin that stretches from ear to ear.

John Dowie read five delightfully whimsical poems, each dedicated to a different side of Cryer; be it Barry the Boy, Barry the Husband or Barry the Drinker. Norman Lovett then accused Cryer of stealing one of his gags sometime in the past: ‘You can’t buy Boots in Boots…’ Fortunately the Lovett was generous enough to let the matter slide as a birthday gift. He proceeded to gloriously ramble through some truly bizarre ideas, leaving one puzzling over the odd operations of his mind.

American magician John Lenahan set up an elaborate card trick involving a pack of cards, some sort of slip-slide exercise machine and 12 members of the audience. The trick’s purpose was lost somewhere in his boundless energy and showmanship, but it was gratefully received.

To conclude the first half, Arthur Smith acted as a cheap Michael Aspel and, with a cheap red folder performed a cheap This Is Your Life for a delighted Cryer. It’s so cheap, in fact, that even none of his own family could be bothered to come, leaving the solitary Cryer surrounded by rows of empty red seats.

Some absent friends did pay their respects via video, from Stanley Baxter and Humphrey Lyttleton, and from Eddie Izzard and Mark Thomas. Each told Cryer that they had much better things to do than be present at the gig – to which Cryer unfailingly creased up in laughter – showing the good humour everyone was keen to mention.

The prize for best video, however, went to Nick Revell who, after looking startled at having to talk about how great a writer, performer and man Barry Cryer is for 30 seconds, simply says ‘…fuck’ before the image fades. All this derision is meant in the nicest way possible, as demonstrated when Smith concluded the segment with a genuinely warm tribute to his friend, calling him an inspiration for the way he has bridged the generational gap in comedy.

The show’s second half was again opened by Ronnie & the Rex, including a fantastic lounge number about turning gay, introducing a portion dedicated to variety and family.

Neil Innes performed a couple of innocently upbeat songs, encouraging the creation of a new political sect known as the ‘ego-warriors’. Apparently it is based upon individuality, even if the initiation process does involve an entire audience chanting the same thing in unison.

Riding his yellow ostrich uncontrollably - of course - Bernie Clifton attempted to settle down long enough to tell some one-liners. His sanity is a cause for concern, but his ability to inject riotous laughter into a room (even if he is only frenziedly running from side to side) is undoubted.

John Sparkes, making a welcome return to the stage in the guise of drunken comic Frank Hovis, impressively spilt an entire pint of lager in just a few seconds, before telling stories about dentists and, well, his wife getting stuck to the linoleum bathroom floor. The bad taste of his material would probably even impress some of the more contemporary ‘offensive’ comics, but there is also an obvious storytelling talent at work.

And then, the family celebrations and tributes began. Jackie Cryer, Barry’s daughter performed a beautiful a cappella rendition of Delta Dawn, garnering huge amounts of rapturous applause. Bob Cryer, his actor son, presented a slightly bizarre – but nonetheless amusing - tribute to his father. His monologue was about discovering his father’s stash of celebrity anecdotes and names to drop as if they were pornography, and then describing the time when all his punchlines – having seemingly taken physical form - escaped and had to be recovered in a huge collective family effort.

Hattie Hayridge emerged on stage as the evening’s final act, with some of her cynical observations unfortunately falling a little flat. However, she still added some interesting moments, providing her own theories about charity shops and the best ways to skip work (genital burns, if you’re wondering).

Seated next to her husband at centre stage, Terri Cryer showed Barry that even she is not above the constant, heartfelt mockery that his peers bestow upon him. Singing him his own song, the lyrics lament that he is not as good-looking, tall or intelligent as other men but still, ‘he’s my Baz’. The performance is a genuine surprise for Barry, who was momentarily overwhelmed by emotion before getting up himself and singing his own version of Let’s Fall In Love’ with Ronnie & the Rex. The song’s altered lyrics were close to comic genius, being hilarious and providing a rather astute British social commentary.

It was a fine celebration of Cryer’s understated comic genius, which is sadly overlooked. But, as Ronnie & the Rex conclude the evening with a rendition of Happy Birthday manipulated to sound like Chas’n’ Dave, and several family members and friends dance at the side of the stage, being overlooked is at the very bottom of Cryer’s agenda.

And as the curtain draws to a standing ovation on this unrepeatable night, one final, classic Cryer gag, as he hollers: ‘Same again tomorrow night.’ If only…

Tom Hughes
April 2005

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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