King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 2 April 2016
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Pathos and superbly performed comedy combine in Canned Laughter at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre.
The established pantomime trio of Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott are here given a chance not only to display their well known comic talents, but also show their more dramatic side – a chance they grab with great eagerness.
The play, written by Ed Curtis with Stewart, features the (fictional) 70s comedy trio Wee Three. It details the effects on their personal and professional lives when Rory Cooper (Stott) is elbowed out by the more ambitious Alec Monro (Stewart). That Monro and Gus Campbell (Gray) become stars but split up, while Rory fares much less well, is made clear at the start of a story then largely told in flashback.
This leaves space for plenty of 70s-style, variety-derived, comic routines, performed with the relish and spot-on timing you would expect from these performers, with Gray’s Eric Morecambe-tinged persona a particular joy.
This certainly lives up to its billing as ‘a funny play about being funny’. What might not be so expected is the rather more serious storyline that is threaded through the routines.
Stott is absent from much of the comedy, instead portraying a spectral, downbeat figure that is extremely touching and demonstrates what an effective stage performer he has become. Gray, meanwhile, is as versatile and as convincing as might be expected, excelling as both the younger, more driven Gus, and as the older, more bitter and bewildered man.
The most surprising thing about the play, however, is Stewart’s portrayal of Alec Monro. Much of the character could be seen as a much bleaker, blacker-hearted version of his own stage personality, even down to the cruel quips about not being credible because he used to present a game show.
That he should present such an unsympathetic figure – so focused on professional success that he has succeeded in driving away everyone who was ever important to him – is a huge risk, but one that comes off intriguingly well.
To a large extent these roles were created with these performers in mind; presumably this is not true of the part of Maggie, Rory’s sister and the trio’s agent. That Gabriel Quigley inhabits what seems an underwritten role so completely is testimony to her great skill and presence.
Curtis’s direction is slick and clever. Francis O’Connor’s set, with a row of light bulbs indicating both a dressing-room mirror and a stage, is particularly good; together with Ben Bracknell’s lighting, this helps to make transitions between different times and places beautifully clear.
Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and a kazoo. Photo: Douglas Robertson.
The seriousness of much of the storyline, and the sharpness of the writing, may very well come as a shock to any audience members expecting another springtime variety show. Indeed, Curtis and Stewart seem well aware of this; after treading into some potentially very deep waters, the second half retreats somewhat into an easy and cheesy sentimentality that is a definite mis-step.
This is only a minor blemish on what is a subtle, convincing and funny production that can only enhance the (already considerable) reputations of all concerned, and of our favourite panto trio in particular.
Running time 2 hours (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 29 March – Saturday 26 April 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat: 2.30pm.
Details and tickets from: http://www.edtheatres.com/cannedlaughter