Park Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
In these ultra-sensitive, snowflake times, writing, and performing, comedy is fraught with danger. One wrong word or gag and a once glittering career can lay in tatters. TV and radio writer Danny Robins, who has performed stand-up himself, knows what it’s like to be walking on eggshells, coming up with patter that’s funny and relevant but not crossing an increasingly fine line between entertaining and offensive.
His dark new comedy, End Of The Pier lends a voice to those fears and highlights dramatic changes in style and topicality of comedy over the past few decades.
A lot of us grew up laughing at comics, sitcoms and jokes that millennials are now appalled at. The double-entendres, racist, sexist banter that had audiences in working men’s clubs, cabarets and on popular TV shows convulsive with laughter, are now seen as shocking and unacceptable.
“Back then comedy didn’t have to be about something. You did it cos it was funny,” says Les Dennis’ washed-up ’80s comedian, Bobby Chalk. “We gave people what they wanted. Jokes. Not political or clever, not blue like your lot. Just funny. And on Saturday nights for 15 years it lifted them out of their lives and made them laugh.”
It’s hard not to believe that Dennis isn’t talking his own lines from the heart. He doesn’t need a script. He knows every word. He comes from a generation of entertainers – like Bobby Davro, Bradley Walsh, Russ Abbot, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Frank Carson and Jim Davidson – who learned their craft working tough audiences in Northern clubs. Their humour was no holds barred. Everyone fell victim and a lot of their material would never be acceptable today.
Chalk was one half of a successful comedy duo, Chalk and Cheese, just like Dennis was one half of a double act with Dustin Gee, and, like Bobby’s partner, Eddie, Gee died of a heart attack much too soon.
But, we hear, the success of Chalk and Cheese, whose Saturday night TV series drew more than 20m, came to a crashing halt after one racist gag too many.
Since then Bobby has languished in a tatty Blackpool flat too lethargic to dress. He drinks John Smiths, eats Hobnobs and watches his son, 30-something Mike – university educated, very-PC aware – on TV, the face of modern, alternative, comedy.
End Of The Pier opens with Mike doing his stand-up. He’s rather Michael McIntyre – in fact I’m pretty sure I’ve heard MM do the duvet joke – the gags are slight, innocuous, observational stuff, nothing to get hot under the collar about.
Later Mike visits his dad. He’s getting married to Jenna, a black TV exec, but, because of the stigma attached to the leper comic, Bobby, still-outraged Jenna is refusing to invite her future father-in-law to the wedding.
But this is no ordinary visit. Mike is on edge, he has a secret to do with a late night confrontation, a Smurf and a Bangladeshi fisherman (sounds like the opening line to a good gag) and it’s dynamite.
I found myself nodding along and agreeing with so much of Robins’ superbly well-observed dialogue. So many people of my generation are now terrified of saying the wrong thing and offending someone.
Phrases and expressions, actions and deeds, which we once took as harmless repartee, are now considered litigious.
Bobby has spent his life apologising. He even has to apologise for his very (now) un-PC biscuit barrel. But he’s not a racist, he says, it was just banter to get a laugh.
“You spend 30 years building a career, think you have respect, friends, then, in a few days, it’s all gone. Like you’ve got leprosy,” he says to Jenna (Tala Gouveia).
“For Christ’s sake. It was just a joke. That’s enough to crucify someone is it? It didn’t hurt anyone, kill anyone.
“You and Michael, you’ve got your standards that exist in your chip-avoiding, Ivory Towers world, lived between Pret a Manger and your Pilates class. Things were different back then.
“Before political correctness came in..black people.. and Asian people..You didn’t get offended in the same way.”
“We did. Just nobody listened,” she says angrily.
Nitin Ganatra doesn’t appear until the play is almost over but he goes down a storm, shattering preconceptions and racial stereotypes, with both the two professional comedians on stage and the audience.
Hiring a veteran entertainer like Les Dennis for a show like this is inspired.
He reels off gags with immaculate timing – and gets plenty of laughs from the multi-generational first night audience – and gives complete credibility to the role of comedian Bobby.
His career has seen its highs and lows, as tastes in comedy have changed over the years (or at least the tastes of TV commissioning editors), but he’s always bounced back, turning his hand to straight acting, on stage and screen, musicals, and TV soaps.
I can’t imagine that Bobby Chalk is a stretch for him but it takes someone with his experience to deliver both laughter and tears with finesse.
The Inbetweeners star, Blake Harrison, is perfectly cast as the voice of a new generation of comedians who may not entirely believe their own PR.
“Say anything right wing and you’ll never work again,” he admits honestly during a crisis of conscience.
The End Of The Pier is thought-provoking, provocative and very funny – and it shouldn’t offend anyone (fingers-crossed).
End of the Pier runs at the Park Theatre until August 11.
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