Timothy Spall steps into the spotlight wearing various hats (and wigs) for this experimental one-man oddity about a drab-looking, mentally-ill prisoner whose inner voices take the form of various mid-twentieth-century entertainers, including Noël Coward, Max Wall and George Formby. It’s a chance for Spall, a brilliant character actor with one of the most malleable faces in showbiz, to let loose, as he slips into the shoes and mannerisms of a gallery of bygone performers who he must have grown up watching and listening to. ‘Stanley: A Man of Variety’ has the feeling of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ as each character appears, one by one, prodding at Stanley’s memory as he goes about his lonely life of drudgery as a prisoner and pushing him to remember what got him into this situation in the first place.
The imitations are fun, and Spall throws himself into them with gusto. It’s impressive to see a successful, lauded actor taking risks like this. But where ‘Stanley’ is less interesting is in the slow reveal of this chap’s biography: his parents, his earlier life, his daughter and the incident that got him locked away in the first place. This backstory feels half-cooked and a bit clichéd. It’s a shaky warm-up for the main attraction: the colourful, showy impressions. It’s all less of a psychological puzzle than it threatens to be, but the sleight of hand of Spall’s performances makes it feel a little bit magic nonetheless.