At The Ho-Ho Club, the punters may be laughing, but backstage the jokes are flying through the air like poison-tipped arrows as the group of stand-up comedians employed by compère and club owner Dave put each other down with increasing bitterness. Caroline Bishop joined a celebrity-filled audience at the intimate King’s Head to watch the verbal warfare in this play by the aptly-named former stand-up comedian Roy Smiles.
Stand-up-turned-actor Smiles wrote this play after years of feeling “cringingly embarrassed” by his time spent as a failed stand-up. He stars in it here in the shape of tired, booze-fuelled comic Mal, who has run out of steam and enthusiasm for stand-up comedy, and has ended up rehashing the same jokes every night in a dingy comedy club in South London.
Mal is one of a group of comics gathered backstage at the Ho-Ho Club, where the banter flows as they get ready to perform for the baying crowd out front. There’s Debbie Thomas (Katy-Jo Howman), the wide-eyed enthusiastic newby who is yet to be thrown to the lions; the egotistical Tony Watts (Stephen Dean) whose stand-up act comprises a lame collection of gay cowboy jokes; Dave (Roger Kitter), the compère, who pays his employees a pittance and delivers a stream of so-bad-they’re-good one-liners to warm up the crowd. Topping the bill is ballsy Linda Walsh (Sally Lindsay), who has made a successful career out of stand-up after realising her jokes beat her singing, and uses her husband’s failings as the basis of her act.
Succinctly structured, the play intersperses the backstage action with the comics’ routines, delivered direct to the audience from a spotlighted corner as in a real comedy club. While the stand-ups take it in turns to put on their public faces, in the basement dressing room relationships are degenerating: Stan, Linda’s embittered and resentful husband and manager, self-destructs on finding out his wife is having a distinctly un-funny affair with Tony; Mal’s true reasons for breaking up his former double-act with Tony are revealed; and Debbie dies on stage in a heartfelt display of the terror first time stand-ups must feel. As Dave says, “the death scene from Bambi got more laughs”.
Playwright Smiles and Director Karl Howman have succeeded in portraying a slice of life as a stand-up comic; a slice that comprises fakery, cynicism and depression, topped off and prettified by a hefty portion of comedy.
The Ho-Ho Club runs until 5 November.