The Cheeky Chappie | Brighton Fringe review by Steve Bennett
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The Cheeky Chappie

Brighton Fringe review by Steve Bennett

On stage, he was the most risqué comedian of them all, conspiring with his variety-hall audience to share the filthiest double entendres from his notorious blue book – even if he would protest that anything untoward was entirely in the listener’s mind.  With his flamboyant costume and mischievous manner he’d even flirt with the notion he could be gay, asking apparently apropos of nothing: ‘What if I am?’

Yet according to this affectionate portrait of the most successful comedian of his day, off-stage he was as chaste as they came. His courtship with his wife Kathleen was coy, with both being overwhelmed by nervous caution on their honeymoon night. Later he would come to give her the singularly unsexy pet name ‘mum’. Even a 20-year affair with his assistant Ann Graham remained unconsummated.

Whatever the truth, such scenes give a dramatic counterpart to a tour-de-force performance by Jamie Kenna as Brighton’s famous son, born 125 years ago this November.

 Kenna has been doing this on-and-off – if mostly off – for 15 years, and his reproduction of the Cheeky Chappie’s fast-talking innuendo-ridden act is spot-on, especially in the way he plays off the crowd’s responses, just as Miller did, rather than being a static performance behind the fourth wall.

The ensemble keep the spirits high with jaunty and apposite song-and-dance numbers from the day, such as Happy Days Are Here Again, Who’s Your Lady Friend and I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside. There’s undoubtedly lots of nostalgia here, but this is not a play set in aspic: Kenna’s performance feels contemporary – helped by the fact Miller was ahead of his time and featured gags that mostly still land today – and the backstory drives things forward.

With her cut-glass accent and la-di-da ways, Anne is the opposite of Miller’s rough working-class ways, and her education meant she could be a power behind the throne, a driving force behind his success. Her story is a little underdeveloped – perhaps understandably as it’s Miller’s we want to hear –  with one tragic incident assumed to explain everything, but Claire Marlowe brings some humanity to a distant character.

Dave Simpson’s script leans on the ‘sad clown’ trope, and the offstage story is occasionally sluggish – but every member of the cast infuse their role with life and Kenna, who also directed, is always compelling.

‘When I'm dead and gone, this game's finished,’ Miller used to tell his audiences, his boasts only partially tongue-in-cheek. ‘There’ll never be another.’ 

He may well have been right, but the ensemble of JW Productions, are doing sterling work in keeping his legacy alive.

Review date: 20 May 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Brighton The Warren

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