British comedians on stage

Posted: Mon Aug 13 2012

Some of the biggest names in British comedy are taking over our stages. Time Out find out what they want and where you can see them

Comedy was once the new rock'n'roll. These days, to judge from the number of comics treading the boards, theatre is the new comedy.

Apparently not content with having colonised the nation's arenas, comedians have been an increasingly regular sight on London stages in recent years. 'The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barrett, as well as Omid Djalili and Jason Manford all made stage debuts in the last 18 months. In February, three stars of 'The League of Gentlemen' were in separate shows simultaneously, while Rufus Hound, who recently gave up stand-up for acting, will follow his Soho Theatre debut with the nationwide tour of 'One Man, Two Guvnors' in October.

This September, there are enough comedians onstage to spark a sense of humour failure at Equity. Rob Brydon, Stephen Fry, Tim Minchin and Mathew Horne will all open in different shows in a single week. It's hardly surprising. Comedy is big business right now and its stars are bankable enough to satisfy West End producers. When Matt Lucas left 'Prick Up Your Ears' in 2009 following the death of his ex-partner, the production closed three weeks early despite original 'Blood Brother' Con O'Neill stepping in.

Yet, there remains a certain suspicion of comedians in dramatic roles. As the eighteenth-century Swiss philosopher Johann Georg Zimmermann put it: 'Comedians are not usually actors, but imitations of actors.'

Comedian Marcus Brigstocke disagrees: 'Stand-up is an acting job. You're giving the illusion of being yourself, while being something completely different. If nothing else, it's acting the role of someone who has the confidence to stand in front of 700 people and try to make them laugh.'

This summer, Brigstocke is playing King Arthur in the West End production of 'Spamalot'. 'Being a stand-up, and the many difference experiences you'll have in clubs of different sizes, using the same and different material, is also fantastic training for acting.'

But there's more to it than that. Comedians have always been at the heart of British theatre. Alongside Shakespeare's leading man of choice, Richard Burbage, the comedian William Kempe is the best known of the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

The music halls of the late nineteenth century had a significant impact on British theatre. Many of its stars crossed between the two, and the genre spawned both modern pantomime and comic revues such as Kenneth Tynan's infamously randy 'Oh! Calcutta' and 'Beyond the Fringe', where Alan Bennett started his career. In British theatre,
high art and lowbrow entertainment have always functioned as twin pistons.

More than that, they often entwine. Paul Scofield's 'King Lear', directed by Peter Brook, was voted the greatest Shakespearean performance of all time in 2004, but he spent most of 1958 in a ridiculous West End comedy called 'Expresso Bongo'. Today, actors such as Mark Rylance, Judi Dench and Simon Russell Beale all readily embrace comic roles. In order to be thought truly great, British actors have to prove their comic chops.

'Don't forget,' says Brigstocke, 'plenty of actors make great stand-ups.' Though Ralph Fiennes at The Comedy Store hardly sounds appealing.


Marcus Brigstocke/Jon Culshaw 'Spamalot'
Brigstocke and Culshaw are old hands, having both played King Arthur in the West End on previous occasions. Despite admitting he wanted 'to evolve into a straight actor' in 2005, it's Culshaw's only stage role, but Brigstocke got the bug, spending much of last year as Albert Perks in 'The Railway Children' at Waterloo.
Harold Pinter Theatre, until Sept 9.

Rob Brydon 'A Chorus of Disapproval'
The Welsh character comedian is making his English theatre debut as the director of an am-dram society in Alan Ayckbourn's 1984 play. Brydon trained as an actor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, but dropped out before graduating to become a Radio Wales DJ.
Harold Pinter Theatre, Sept 17-Jan 5 2013.

Mathew Horne 'Charley's Aunt'
Having started out in a comedy double act with future RSC actor Bruce MacKinnon, the 'Gavin & Stacey' star made his stage debut in Joe Orton's 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' at the Trafalgar Studios three years ago.
Menier Chocolate Factory, Sept 20-Nov 10.

Tim Minchin 'Jesus Christ Superstar'
The musical comedian and Matilda composer (above) began his career as an actor in Australia and even played Hamlet for the Perth Theatre Company in 2004. He reportedly asked Andrew Lloyd Webber for the role of Judas. Mind you, he knows it well, having understudied it twice down under.
The O2, Sept 21-23.

Stephen Fry 'Twelfth Night'
Fry's last foray into the West End, 17 years ago, is infamous; he fled to France three days into the run of Simon Gray's 'Cell Mates' after a bad review triggered depression. He's written successfully for the stage though, adapting the West End musical 'Me and My Girl' and, more recently, 'Cinderella' for the Old Vic.
Shakespeare's Globe, Sept 22-Oct 14; Apollo Shaftesbury Nov 2-Feb 3 2013.

Rowan Atkinson 'Quartermaine's Terms'
Atkinson claims to have rediscovered his love for theatre after playing Fagin in 'Oliver!' at Drury Lane in 2009, but Simon Gray's comedy at the Wyndhams in January will be his first non-musical play in 25 years. As a student, Atkinson (below) was heavily involved in Oxford's Experimental Theatre Club.
Wyndham's Theatre, Jan 23-Apr 13 2013.

David Walliams 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Walliams was a member of the National Youth Theatre, where he met his 'Little Britain' partner Matt Lucas. Despite rave reviews for his debut in Rupert Goold's 'No Man's Land' at The Almeida, it's taken four years for him to return to the boards. He'll play Bottom as part of the Michael Grandage season.
Noël Coward Theatre, Sept 7 2013-Nov 16.