The desire for stardom has not lessened since Trevor Griffiths wrote Comedians in 1975; in fact it may be stronger, with more outlets than ever for the talented and untalented to give it their best shot in front of celebrity judges on national television. The fact that stand-up comics now pack out vast venues like the O2 puts even more emphasis on what is at stake for the wannabe comics in Griffiths’s play.
There are six of them. Having been tutored in the art of laughter by former comic Eddie Waters, they are now preparing for their final showcase, performing a routine at a local working men’s club in front of talent scout Bert Challoner, who has the power to make their comedy career or send them scuttling back to their day jobs.
We meet them in the 1970s school classroom where Waters’s evening class in comedy takes place, amid the world maps, peeling wallpaper and childishly vulgar blackboard graffiti of Anthony Lamble’s set. As they receive last minute advice from Waters they practise word association and improvisation exercises – with varying degrees of success – like singers warbling through warm-up scales.
The skill of Griffiths’s three-act play – the scenes take place before, during and after their showcase – is in making us laugh even when the jokes aren’t funny, or, in fact, because the jokes aren’t funny. Becoming the inadvertent audience for the comic sextet’s performances in act two, we witness their gauche stage personas and hackneyed jokes – made more so, perhaps, because of the 1970s humour – and we laugh; yet we are laughing at them, not with them. The worse the routine the funnier the joke; when Reece Shearsmith and Mark Benton’s brotherly double-act dies on stage, the laughter ripples harder through the Lyric Hammersmith’s stalls.
But there is one anomaly. David Dawson’s Gethin Price, until now the teacher’s pet, performs a bizarre, humourless act which, unlike his fellow wannabes, is entirely intentional. Unlike them, he says he is not willing to sell out, to perform the kind of standard routine that Challoner demands of them. But the wacky creation he devises – expertly performed by Dawson but no less weird for it – simply seems self-destructive, fuelled by whatever demons lurk in Price’s personal hopes and fears.
It is well known that the comic and the tragic are often linked, and Griffiths’s play shows the darker side of the business, the pain behind the laughter, as this group of men face Challoner’s verdict. Matthew Kelly’s distinctly unfunny Waters – the character hasn’t laughed, it seems, since his own heyday as a comic – aptly depicts the sadness behind many comics as he recognises his younger self in Price.
The principal cast is supported by several great cameos; Keith Allen is suitably patronising as the all-powerful Challoner, whose succinct advice to comedian-in-training Mick, whose routine “went off the rails”, is to “stay on them”; and Paul Rider steals his own scenes as the weary, jobsworth school caretaker and the subtly sarcastic compere. Sometimes the funniest moments come from those who don’t mean to be funny at all.