Comedy must have a victim and one person’s ‘bantz’ is always cruelty to someone else. Those are the issues debated in writer and broadcaster Danny Robins’s new black comedy, debuting at the Park Theatre.
Bobby (Les Dennis) is a washed-up comedian living in Blackpool, his household fame as part of hit TV double-act, Chalk and Cheese, long since ruined by a racist joke that made national headlines. He faces history repeating itself when his son, Michael – a darling of today’s alternative comedy scene – turns up at his door, on the eve of filming his second TV series, with a terrible confession.
Both the play and director Hannah Price’s production take a while to find their feet. The first half is slowed down by some awkward exchanges and stilted pacing. The comedy and characterisation aren’t as nimble as they could be. But the show really hits its stride after the interval.
The play spends its first act pitting old against new, jokes against ‘observational’ comedy (as disparaged by Bobby), laying the groundwork to be destroyed in the second half, when Michael’s eye-rolling at his dad’s out-of-date humour and compulsive punning is exposed as a façade barely covering his own bigotry.
It’s a smart, sharp move. It retrospectively casts even Bobby’s seemingly most innocently terrible jokes – which, he protests, gave a voice to the white working-class now excluded by comedians riffing on Waitrose – in a different light. They are gateways to the harm caused by the intoxicating power of getting a laugh. When life is complicatedly hard, picking on people is dangerously easy.
Les Dennis captures Bobby’s crumpled despondency, the eager crowd-pleaser with no one to impress any more. He shuffles around designer James Turner’s mausoleum-like set (complete with a doleful grandfather clock) like a ghost from the ‘80s. He brings genuine heft to Bobby’s reappraisal of his past via Michael’s actions.
As Jenna – Michael’s mixed-race fiancée and BBC comedy commissioner – Tala Gouveia finds the balance between her character’s spoof of a ‘W1A’-style executive and her eloquent opposition to Bobby’s self-defensive nostalgia. With measured, effective force, she recounts Jenna’s childhood memory of Chalk and Cheese audiences laughing at her black mother.
Meanwhile, as Michael, Blake Harrison (best known for ‘The Inbetweeners’) does a great job of exposing his character’s inner ugliness and toxically fragile ego. The horrible irony of his trajectory into spewing bile at immigrants is that, for a supposedly ‘observational’ comic, he can’t see beyond his own frustrations.
But if Robins’s writing delves into the cesspit of comedy, it also – in one brilliantly affirming scene – revels in its ability to punch upwards, to speak truth to power. Just as the play opens with a fourth-wall breaking version of Michael’s stand-up routine, Nitin Ganatra (aka Masood from ‘EastEnders’) gets the mic and delivers a tour-de-force of political and social comedy. As Mohammed, who refuses to be Michael’s victim, he fully sells humour’s ability to challenge views.