Park Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
End of the Pier is a play about opposites. It examines generational opposition between a father and his son, the metropolitan Londoners and the rest of the country, the middle class and the working class, black and white – or more pertinently, white and not white. All through the opposition between the old and newer waves of comedy.
Bobby (a fantastic Les Dennis) is a faded stand-up. He’s had his day, and outlasted it, continuing to do dated, racist material long past the time he knew he shouldn’t until he was exposed and held up to national opprobrium.
Michael (Blake Harrison) is his son. Metropolitan and with his career going to comfortable, safe, Michael McIntyre-type places. Michael has it all – and has all but disowned his dad. Then Michael gets drunk and his true nature is exposed.
Comedy has for a long time been a key artistic battlefront in the culture wars. Ever since the alternative comedy boom of the 80s shunted out the wheeltappers generation, questions not just of what is funny, but what is acceptably funny have raged. Those who will squeal “You can’t say anything” one week, will be crying “you mustn’t say that” the next. And vice versa. For years, of course, the things that were once unacceptable have been creeping back under a thin veneer of irony.
As someone who has attempted stand-up, I have felt up close the power comedy has to build you up or to tear you down. When you’re on that stage, you will do anything for that laugh. Anything. But in this age where everything you do is exposed, that willingness to do anything is what brings comedians so much trouble. When an art form is famous for exposing your inner self, you cannot claim the stand-up was just a character.
The play takes a while to get going and sags slightly at the end of the first act, but as the second act is electric from start to finish (largely because of the introduction of Mohammed, brilliantly played by Nitin Ganatra) you soon forget this. The cast are superb, and the awful emotional regression at the heart of the play feels very real and very topical. Michael could well be Dapper Laughs or that twat with a bulldog.
Les Dennis is particularly fascinating to watch in this play. As someone more associated with the less fashionable end of 80s comedy, he is a good choice for playing the mournful character of Bobby. But he’s also a subtle and versatile enough actor to give Bobby’s journey real bite. You see so many of the choices Les himself may have made and watched his friends make. So much of the determination to both learn and grow but still cling on to the things that made him in the first place. You can’t help but go into this play with a conception of who Les Dennis is – he’s been there in the background our whole lives. It took skilful direction and acting though, to bring that to Bobby, and not let it overwhelm him.
My main quibble is that the character of Jenna is underdeveloped. She is a foil for the actions and feelings of others, an occasional catalyst for action, but not really a character in her own right. There are interesting questions to be asked about the parallels between Jenna’s squeamishness about the Northern working class white folk of Blackpool, and the racism she faces and confronts. But these are largely brushed over in favour of the tension between Michael and Mohammed.
On the whole, though, End of the Pier is funny, poignant and thought-provoking. It left no stone unturned in its examination both of comedy and cruelty. It did well in showing how well the two become seamlessly entwined – and how, when they aren’t the edges can seem just a little too bland.
This isn’t a play of easy answers, nor of easy laughs. It’s all the better for that.
End of the Pier is on until 11 August https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/end-of-the-pier