I had feared that Trevor Griffiths’ play The Comedians, premiered in 1975 and revived by the Hammersmith Lyric – the run has just closed – might seem as dated as Galsworthy or Priestley, with its exploration of racist and sexist humour and an argot of venues that seems as remote as the Romans. I needn’t have worried.
The underlying tension in the play, between the old pro, Eddie Waters, who’s teaching the aspirant comedians of the play’s title, and the agent Bert Challenor, come to look for new talent, is as live as ever.
Eddie Waters sets out his stall as he warms up his protégés ahead of their performances at a local club in front of Challenor:
WATERS: A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.
Some of the writing, and the performance, as the play explores this in its first act, amid the pre-set tension, is right at the edge, particularly the apparent improv around the tongue twister, “The traitor distrusts truth”.
Challenor, of course, is having none of it, as he arrives towards the end of the act, to give the comedians a few tips before they go on stage.
CHALLENOR: I’m not looking for philosophers, I’m looking for comics. I’m looking for someone who sees what the people want and knows how to give it to them … Any good comedian can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they’re going. And that direction is, quite simply … escape.
Of course, (mild spoiler alert) the students who pander to Challenor get the contracts. Price has changed his act at the last minute, and is tough, challenging, and perhaps not funny, mystifying agent and the other students alike (but not Eddie Waters). The third act, effectively, plays out between Waters and Price. They’re on the same side of the argument that comedy should ‘change the situation’, but about what comedy is for, but disagree about whether this needs to be done with love and compassion or not.
This makes it sound like a play of ideas, and it is, of course. But it’s also a technical tour de force, an ensemble piece in which all the ensemble are deftly drawn (as my friend Rick pointed out), some clever stagecraft, outstanding writing, and perhaps most satisfying of all, it plays out in real time – the director of the Lyric production, Sean Holmes, emphasised this with a clock in full view of the audience, which could have been risky for a less accomplished play or production.
‘What will you do?’, asks Waters of Price, as he leaves. ‘I’ll wait’, he says.
And with hindsight, he’d probably have done alright, along with the other comedians dismissed by Challenor. 1975 was probably – pre-punk, pre-Jubilee, pre-Thatcher – the highwater mark of the ‘joke telling’ comedian in the Northern clubs. As alternative comedy took off in the early 80s, the political, the angry, and the character comedians all prospered. Perhaps Griffiths had an instinct that the moment was about to turn.
The production photo above is by Helen Maybanks.You can see more of her photographs – many of them utterly charming – at her blog.