End Of The Pier | Theatre review by Steve Bennett
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End Of The Pier

Theatre review by Steve Bennett

Forty-three years ago, Trevor Griffiths’s visionary play The Comedians foreshadowed the rise of alternative comedy by highlighting the damaging stereotypes that had clogged the heart of 1970s stand-up.

Now Danny Robins similarly takes some of the lazier habits of modern observational comedy to task – without ever letting the old guard off the hook – in End Of The Pier. 

The plays start with a set from Britain’s favourite comedian. He’s called Michael and isn’t so far from Mr McIntrye, with a Comedy Roadshow-style TV showcase, a skip in his step, and a bland routine about making tea, the Brits’ love of queuing and struggling with the duvet covers.

At first, the audience isn’t quite sure what to make of this material: are we supposed to find it funny? Blake Harrison, of Inbetweeners fame, certainly delivers like an affably enthusiastic stand-up – avoiding the usual pitfall that actors rarely play comedians convincingly since they remain behind the imaginary fourth wall – but the titters quickly dry up with such tepid trivia.

But it eventually becomes clear that Robins does not expect us to find this routine much funnier than the tired comedy of old.

Michael, we soon discover, is the son of Bobby Chalk, whose stellar career as part of the double act Chalk and Cheese ended in ignominy when exposed for their racist club material. Engagingly played by Les Dennis, he still has the twinkle when cracking old gags, which is something of a compulsion, but he is largely a ghost of his old self: the nation’s funny friend now greeted with judgmental stares wherever he goes.

Father and son are essentially estranged, until Michael unexpectedly arrives at Bobby’s Blackpool home seeking urgent help after getting embroiled in a fight at the end of the proverbial, and literal, pier.

Tensions between the pair are played out through their differences in comedy. Bobby never considered that his old set could do harm, the targets he considered only as archetypes, exaggerations created for the all-important laugh, yet modenr comics might attack real people. But there is always a victim, whether a celebrity and their family, or a whole swathe of society being made to feel marginalised, or even a comedians’ own loved ones.

There’s a class issue, too. Bobby gave working-class people like him what they wanted, a release from their daily lives… an escape that is provided in the 21st Century by drink and drugs rather than comedy. Meanwhile, Michael has become middle-class, peddling a type of comedy that slavishly adheres to the agenda of a metropolitan liberal elite.

Endless debates can be had about the impact and ethics of comedy, and Robins’ always thought-provoking script covers many angles of the complex debate, even if it can tend towards speechifying (and occasional verbosity) rather than genuine dialogue. But the dramatic tensions he builds and strong performances of this cast are compelling. The way Michael undergoes some significant changes of character might stretch the credibility, but Harrison manages to make them convincing, more-or-less.

That Michael’s days are numbered are underlined by the contrast with up-and-coming comic Mohammed, a Bangladeshi refugee played by EastEnders actor Nitin Ganatra, who has a real story to tell and a plan to get ahead that appears to be influenced by Rupert Pupkin from Martin Scorsese’s King Of Comedy, once the opportunity presents itself. His stand-up has an authenticity that Michael can no longer command and his routine, mesmerisingly relevant, is in stark contrast to Michael’s pallid on-stage musings.

The cast is completed by Tala Gouveia as Jenna, a BBC comedy commissioner and Michael’s fiancée. She makes the best of a relatively two-dimensional character, which shows Robins isn’t immune to the odd observational comedy cliché himself when it comes to couscous-loving media darlings with their fancy coffees.

Unlike Griffiths’s play, End Of The Pier is slightly behind the curve as far as stand-up attitudes are concerned. Certainly festival stand-up has long been dominated by comics talking about their personal truths, so the idea that Mohammed is such a revelation doesn’t quite ring true. Although with Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette redefining the rules in the mainstream, Robins’ work proves pertinent.

• End Of The Pier, directed by Hannah Price, is playing at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park,  North London, until August 11.

Review date: 22 Jul 2018
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Park Theatre

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