Washed up, washed out, down on his luck Bobby (Les Dennis), once lauded on prime-time television as part of double-act ‘Chalk and Cheese’ is now banished to the pantomime circuit (following an offensive ‘joke’ years ago) and supping cans on his settee watching his son take the plaudits on the same medium: like a moth he is drawn to the flame of fame transfixed in a hypnoidal trance down memory lane. Sepia memories and faded dreams.
The excellent set and props all tell stories of their own, each item expertly representing temporal and generational differences: Bobby’s sitting room is laden with memorabilia to ‘golden times’, a set of golf clubs and indoor putting green a metaphor for the halcyon days of TV ‘funnymen’ hitting birdies that are now albatrosses. The grandfather clock’s ‘tick-tock’ fills the silences signifying not only the passing of time, but, also the hands that deal the cards. The golliwog biscuit jar is a stark reminder of how skin colour used to be seen so blithely, perceptions handed down from elders.
Ever since Ricky Gervais’s ‘Extras’ when Les Dennis brilliantly took the mickey out of his ‘representation’ and reminded people of his propensity for quips and cracks he has gone from strength to strength. Here he demonstrates his chops as a funny straight man in a tale that mirrors his own time out of the limelight at the mercy of a salacious media.
Bobby’s son Mark (Blake Harrison) is a ‘modern’ comedian, commanding television audiences of 4 million with an act redolent of what Stewart Lee would call ‘The Russells’ (c.f. Brand/Kane/Howard) frenetic pacing, kinetic stage movement, a scattergun stream of supposed consciousness full of ‘everyday observations’ such as ‘queuing … tea consumption … men’s incapability to negotiate duvet covers …’ so far so ‘Live at the Apollo’.
Happily engaged to expectant mixed-race BBC comedy producer Jenna (Tala Gouveia) and the epitome of P.C. World, he inexplicably becomes embroiled in an altercation with a night fisherman at the ‘end of the pier’ resulting in a prejudiced tirade that is filmed and on the verge of going viral thereby scuppering everything he has.
The sins of the father repeated brings the pair together bringing out the repercussions of the joke from Chalk and Cheese (Mark’s bullying experiences at the fists of an Asian schoolkid) revealing the distance of their relationship yet cementing it at the same time. Mark’s act is revealed to be all show and tell, a rehearsed ‘performance’ riddled with contradictions and vacuity, as his father chides him ‘You’re a tourist, a voyeur’.
Act II sees the fisherman, Mohammed (Nitin Ganatra) steal the show and the spotlight, in the process skewering the role of joke-telling and how not to confuse the message with the man. By blackmailing Mark into giving him a slot on the show he proceeds to dazzle the audience with a litany of ‘Muslim’ jokes (‘My Sharia Law’ sang to the tune of Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’) and stereotype debunking (‘Hoover is a brand, not a vacuum cleaner’), how Smurfs’ blueness signifies ‘other’ and deftly shows that having a fishing permit denotes ‘membership’. Mohammed then deconstructs the British imperial myth surrounding ‘hero’ Winston Churchill in a polemic that horrifically reminds us of his complicity in the massacring of 3 million Indians (‘half a holocaust’). No laughing matter.
This biting black (and blue) satire articulates the nature of jokes in today’s world, illustrating how the rapacity and ferocity of an aside or throwaway gag can spread like a tidal wave causing irrevocable damage to both teller and targets. Conversely the play outlines the ‘double-think’ that exists today, where the fear of thinking and/or saying what you really believe causes cognitive dissonance, seeing offence where there is none. The dialogue is punchy, witty, arch, and scabrous and veers consistently from pathos to bathos.
It also examines the changing in societal attitudes by deploying intelligent humour, both challenges and defends the notion of ‘working class’ values and beliefs and questions the veracity of ‘alternative’ comedy (‘Back then comedy didn’t have to be about something, it was just funny’) and whether a joke is ever just a joke. At the heart of all comedy lies power relations.
The production lampoons the role of ‘diversity’ boards, arguing that tokenism still dominates, where applicability supplants ability and nods to the redemption-vision of outcasts, those programmes where an entertainment leper is followed round by a camera crew and filmed being contrite and embarrassed. The overall message is ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’. In Mark’s case, by falling on it.
In these times of blurred perceptions where identity is a tool used to discriminate and divide, when being ‘British’ means many things to different people surrounded by political posturing performed by real panto villains, Danny Robins’s outstanding play augmented by four stellar performances is a winning tonic.End of the Pier