Park Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
Danny Robins’ funny, credible, sharp-tongued play pivots around four figures of central cultural importance to modern Britain: three comedians and a comedy commissioner. It’s set in Blackpool. Les Dennis is the classic benign seaside comic of the 20c, battered and baffled by change, once in his heyday untroubled by political correctness but latterly ruined by one racially insensitive joke, spotted at a gig by a pious Guardian journalist. For him (to our considerable entertainment in the script early on) everything is still a feed-line.
His son Mike (Blake Harrison), lean and hirsute, is more of a modern observational standup, a sort of stingless Russell Brand whose only barbs are for safe targets like Trump. He’s big on TV with lame amiable jokes about lemon tea. They are at odds over what is comedy and what is banter, and not least about class tastes. The young man’s piety is the kind which demonises the old working class because their observational comedy – in a fast-changing 20c – tended to observe that suddenly their familiar town had a lot of brown strangers in it, making curry and not as yet making friends with them. Which strand of humour may not actually have been hostile in intent, but was, of course, wounding to the minorities, and had to end.
The third pivotal figure is Mike’s fiancée Jenna – Tala Gouveia – who is young, glamorous and of mixed race, and takes offence at the lightest wrong word from a minimum-wage hotel receptionist, snarling at her “clearly the black in Blackpool is ironic, I tweeted that, got a lot of retweets”. She is an affluent TV commissioning editor who drips with contempt for Blackpool and everyone in it “truly horrific. Geriatrics or drug addicts… true horror… they don’t have a Pret… mobility scooters and people shooting up…”.
Being a TV comedy executive, she has insufficient irony to notice that her contempt for a poor working-class town is actually not so different from the jokes for which she lacerates Bobby. She hasn’t invited him to the wedding.
Whether it is entirely healthy for our culture to be so vitally centred on the profession of comedy and its power, you might well ask. But while – as Peter Cook put it – we all sink giggling into the sea, the question of comedy as power is beautifully teased out here. So is the question of how shallow is the liberal veneer. On Mike’s stag night, dressed as a Smurf and lurching between bars that “smell of jäger bombs and chlamydia”, he picks a drunken fight. With a Bangladeshi. Using language which can end a media career in seconds. Especially if the victim’s son has recorded it…
In the second act, in his dressing-room, Michael – supported by his father – meets the victim, Mohammed, and Nitin Ganatra steals the show, . It is a horribly, awkwardly, brilliant scene with Ganatra wholly in charge, an imp of mischief who has a neat demand and – it turns out – isa rather better comedian than either of the professionals. Young Mike unravels into something darker and angrier than his bland liberal TV persona; Les Dennis, always a gem, with a face creased with pain and understanding shows up as the more adult and thoughtful of the two. Jenna’s attitude to Mohammed is also a beautifully uncomfortable example of patronizing BAME-on-BAME attitudes.
It is sharp, entertaining, actually rather important. I hope it transfers up West and spreads its healingly intelligent discomfort further as it questions not only the past generation’s pier-end comedy but the right-on, resentful, cruel, lucrative faux- kindliness of the new.