Cissie and Ada: An Hysterical Rectomy

Theatre review by Steve Bennett

They are comedy’s equivalent of the jukebox musicals: plays about dead comics that can draw both on nostalgia and an established back-catalogue of writing... and all paid off with the dramatic pathos of a funnyman’s death.

The latest to join the throng is Cissie and Ada: An Hysterical Rectomy, about the gossipy alter-egos of Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough, credible characters despite existing in a seaside-postcard world of double entendres and toilet humour in an age of bloomers, hair rollers and Fray Bentos corned beef.

So, suitably enough, the play opens at the seaside, the pair bantering away on their deckchairs in one of their classic sketches. As Dawson, Eric Potts hams up the already exaggerated bosom-heaving, fidgeting and grotesque gurning that went into Ada, and the effect is distracting.

Between the recreated skits, Cissie and Ada explores the relationship Dawson had with Barraclough, his writer Terry Ravenscroft, and a young dresser as they made shows for the BBC in the late Seventies. This latter connection, initially at last, does not paint the comedian in a good light: demanding, divaish and possibly racist - although the relationship becomes more tender as times goes on. Yet most accounts of Dawson’s career say he had a good rapport with those workers lower down the credit lists.

Similarly, the interactions with Ravenscroft, as played by fellow former Coronation Street star Steven Arnold, mature, despite being frequently one-dimensional and repetitive. The writer is forever annoyed with Dawson going off-script, feeding his insecurities that the comic hero doesn’t think he’s funny, while the comedian wants to trust his instincts.

In all this, Barraclough is the calming influence, apologising for his friend’s misdeeds, and being a bit of a nag about Dawson’s drinking, frequently berating him: ‘You shouldn’t do that, you know’ whenever the trust hip flask is produced. Nevertheless Steve Nallon, still best known as the impressionist who mimicked Margaret Thatcher so well, does a grand job of rounding out an empathetic character, occasionally injecting some waspish camp.

The cursory consideration of Dawson’s boozing habits is, however, not as superficial as the clearly tacked-on lines in which wardrobe assistant Sandra (Natasha Magigi) complains of being harassed by a BBC colleague. It’s not a storyline, as such, just an acknowledgement that playwright Graham Warrener pays attention to the news.

Though his script occasionally plods, the affection between all four characters eventually comes to the fore to create a sweet-natured portrait of not just the famous faces, but the people who worked with them.

And, of course, he has some of the original lines to work with, too, both from the Cissie and Ada scenes and from Dawson’s own comedy. There’s poetic beauty in the funny descriptions of a Blackpool civic reception (‘Posh? Even the brass band had a string section’) or a grotty old working men’s club where he once worked: ‘It used to be air conditioned... then the bat died.’

When out of Ada’s wig, Potts curbs his comic overacting and makes for a sympathetic Dawson, which is heightened when the plot brings some tragedy into his life. And while fans of Dawson will inevitably be intrigued by a play about his creations; the result, though flawed, is entertaining and touching.

Published: 29 Mar 2013

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