Park Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
Casting Les Dennis in End Of The Pier gives Danny Robins’ new play a slice of incisive credibility. In a play that is all about stand-up comics, comedy and, ultimately, racism, Dennis – whose career as a nationally beloved entertainer stretches back decades – offers up a performance that is believable and complex, especially at those points in the evening when Robins’ play strikes comedy gold.
Dennis is Bobby, a has-been celebrity comedian who once drew TV audiences of 20 million with his double act Chalk and Cheese (think Cannon and Ball and you’re close). Mike is his (almost) estranged son, a celebrity comedian in his own right – albeit in the modern world where a broadcast audience of 4 million is an achievement.
To say much more about the plot would be to spoil as its twists and sucker-punches hit the audience from early on in the drama. Better perhaps to focus on the play’s finest moments which emerge as Dennis reflects upon the changing nature of British comedy over the decades and his contemplation of the toll that his dated, racist routines took upon his close family in their formative years.
Dennis’ work is first class as he truly inhabits the character of a man who has been broken by life and ultimately changed his ways. There is fine work too from Tala Gouveia as Mike’s mixed-race wife Jenna, a woman ultimately unable to forgive Bobby for the pain she suffered as a child from his racist gags, irrespective of his own personal redemption. And then there’s Nitin Ganatra’s Mohammed º who only appears towards the end of the second half but steals the show with a sensational monologue.
But for all this play’s many strengths, it is profoundly flawed, muddled and ultimately untidy and unbelievable, with the pressure falling on Blake Harrison’s Michael to deliver most if not all of the belief-defying moments. The pressure upon Harrison to make these implausible twists work on stage is a massive ask, if not a poisoned chalice, and perhaps through no fault of his own he ends up delivering a performance that falls short of the mark.
But whilst End Of The Pier may have its imperfections, it is far from a comedy of errors. Offering two hours of compelling and arguably unmissable theatre combining humor and cliche together with many unpalatable home truths, it is one of the most stimulating new plays this year. As the nation’s theatre audiences remain predominantly white, Robins makes it clear: the joke’s on them.
Runs until 11th AugustPhoto credit: Simon Annand