Writer: Danny Robins
Director: Hannah Price
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There are many archetypes of British comedy at play in End of the Pier, Park Theatre’s new drama about funny business by Danny Robins. Michael is a mainstream BBC comedian, currently recording a second series of his stand-up show comprising mild, ineffectual material about struggling with duvet covers. His father Bobby was an old-school comedian, part of Chalk and Cheese, a double act which in their heyday were commanding TV audiences of 20 million and playing to packed houses around the country and on Blackpool pier.
But the shadow of offensiveness, and its role in comedy, is never far away. Bobby’s career ended when a racist joke, even more extreme than the duo’s 1970s “banter”, was recorded by a journalist and disseminated. The difference between generations, and their polarising attitudes to how hurtful one can be with a comedy routine, is at the heart of Robins’s play. And at its occasional best, it shines a light on all sides of a complex philosophical debate.
Comedy cannot exist without a victim, Robins’s characters accept. The question is how far one can go – and whether a more racially diverse Britain automatically means that the stereotypes that drove so many comedy routines are no longer acceptable, or just that “political correctness” has cut true comedy off at the knees.
Les Dennis, a comedian whose career has turned to acting with a recent stint in Coronation Street, is ideal casting in the role of the older comic. Likeable enough and able to deliver hoary old puns with just the right amount of charm, the sense that his character may not be as pleasant as the actor’s own persona suggests the direction that Robins is going to take us. Likewise, Blake Harrison’s Michael capitalises on the younger actor’s charismatic turns in the likes of The Inbetweeners to suggest a warmth to his character as he struggles to rebuild connections with his estranged father.
But such a simple story would not make for a satisfying play, and Robins is smart enough to acknowledge that. Like his father before him, Michael finds that a video risks ending his career – but this is one that is not of his comedy routine, but a drunken nighttime encounter while out on a stag night in Blackpool that ended in racist violence.
The moments when the inversion of the father-son dynamic is addressed head-on in dialogue are the play’s weakest. Expressions of right-wing nationalist sentiment always seem tricky to display in fiction, partly because playwrights never seem to be able to back up a character’s views with anything other than the same empty rhetoric that fuels the most simplistic tabloid attitudes to race, immigration and other connected social issues. Robins tries his best, but monologues on how Britain is “full”, and as a nation of queuers people are upset at new arrivals cutting in line, feel the least convincingly written and delivered of the play.
Similarly, Michael’s BBC comedy commissioner fiancée, while ably performed by Tala Gouveia, seems a little too cookie cutter, as if she has been lifted from a spec script for an episode of satirical sitcom W1A. Jokes about how she doesn’t find comedy particularly funny, or how she was hired to a BBC diversity committee that would otherwise have been all-white, feel like they’ve been shoehorned into the script in an unsuccessful attempt to add flesh to a character that exists primarily to illustrate the father and son’s different attitudes to black people.
Far more interesting is Nitin Ganatra’s Mohammed, whose character holds the ability to destroy Michael’s career. His character comes to dominate the second act with a blisteringly funny, scathing monologue which says more about modern attitudes to race and their historical origins than all the forced conversation between Harrison and Dennis manages to muster. During its delivery, Ganatra has the audience in the palm of his hand – not so much, as Harrison’s Michael suggests because he is “speaking his truth”, but because Ganatra uses the full range of stand up skills to draw the audience in. In his hands, we become complicit in the cruelty of comedy, just as we become its victims.
It is that routine which elevates End of the Pier from a rather mundane black comedy about race into something with the potential to be greater, and become truly thought-provoking. And although Robins insists on an overwritten, melodramatic coda which has the potential to undo that work, it is Ganatra whose performance will be remembered.
Run until August 11 | Image: Simon Annand