Lost Theatre, London – until 11 March 2017
You remember Norman Wisdom don’t you? A music hall colossus, a lovable Gump, Britain’s answer to Jerry Lewis, Mr Grimsdale’s nemesis and the genetic material from which Lee Evans was later grown in a lab. He’s an entertainer remembered with great affection, perhaps by none more than Jack Lane, who’s built a one-man show around the great man; a whistle-stop tour of his life and career.
Lane’s high energy performance is a great act of reverence. The danger for a show like this is that it’s little more than a tribute act, but what Lane’s managed to achieve is something like a theatrical autobiography. This is Wisdom’s story but told his way, pitched to his audience. The real world, in terms of characterisation, takes a back seat to a heightened music hall reality of comic exaggeration, prat falls, sight gags, song and word play.
Lane inhabits Wisdom and has given serious thought to how the funny man would present his own backstory. Not with sombre interludes or moments of gritty realism, but with the kind of verve and silliness his audience came to love. Consequently, it has the feel of something like an audience with the young Norman. The lows are there but so is the Gump, there to pull back and keep it light when necessary. That well-observed regard for audience sensibilities makes such moments more poignant, somehow. Lane knows that for Wisdom it was all about keeping the crowd happy.
This feels like the appropriate register for this particular story; after all Wisdom was his own creation – a non-threatening, non-cynical, innocent entertainment persona who, the play notes, provided escapism both for audiences and the man himself. Psychoanalysing Wisdom carries the risk that all judgements are retrospectively applied, too clean, but supposing that he became a workaholic from fear of returning to poverty and embraced audiences as a means of making up for the lack of love and attention in his childhood, feel like safe bets.
Ultimately, it’s easy to see why Wisdom of a Fool has been wholeheartedly endorsed by the entertainer’s family. It’s a warm and funny celebration of the man’s tenacity, work ethnic and talent. Fans of that period – the era of Rank Films, variety theatre and their import to film and TV, will find Lane’s show highly evocative. Those wishing to introduce their kids to Wisdom’s oeuvre won’t find a better introduction.