On Theatre

A tasty tester for a better year

The Comeback is a gutsy British response to a period of glum hardship

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Sonia Friedman is a doyenne of theatrical production in London — as tough as they come from a family born to the stage. As the pandemic unleashed lockdowns around the world she closed 18 productions, forfeiting revenues for the year of many tens of millions as productions were mothballed or closed for good.

Friedman tells me it will cost £3 million to get her biggest global moneyspinner, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, open again, even when vaccines are rolled out and audiences worldwide reckon it is safe to crowd into theatres again.

It is a reminder that commercial theatre is a ruthlessly calculated business — and big productions need auditoriums that are four-fifths full, most of the time, to be viable. Friedman is, however, soft-hearted enough about the losses for audiences, actors and support staff stripped of their livelihood to tell me (on “The Economist Asks” podcast) that she sat down outside the shuttered Wyndham Theatre where she had just opened Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt before the March lockdown and burst into tears.

It is a reminder that commercial theatre is a ruthlessly calculated business

Given that even a fast-moving vaccine rollout is unlikely to see productions return at scale for the next few months, the partial solutions look like a lot more digital offerings and the occasional burst of live performance in venues which can allow for more space between seats and still bring in decent footfall.

The Comeback, from Friedman Productions at the Noël Coward, is a gutsy British response to a period of glum hardship — a festival of silliness and distraction, with a nod to the ghosts of two-hander comedies such as Morecambe and Wise and Cannon and Ball. It is also a chance for a new generation to give the tradition of grand farce, from Feydeau to Frayn, a millennial spin of its own. Alex Owen and Ben Ashenden star in a dizzying two- (and at times four-) hander to cheer us up and remind us of the magic of a truly daft play done well. It starts out with their alter egos (Ben and Alex, conveniently) playing two insecure, flailing comics who are fretful that they have missed their chance of stardom and are stuck as the warm-up acts on a provincial tour to an elderly duo of entertainers stricken by the same fears of creeping irrelevance. It’s a nicely poignant note in a year which has left a lot of us, whether novices or veterans at the game of life, feeling a bit less sure of ourselves than we were before the twenty-first century plague rolled around and turned life upside down.

The Comeback is a development of The Pin, the duo’s launchpad incarnation, together with director Emily Burns. It began as sketches at the Edinburgh Festival and has had incarnations at the Soho Theatre and as a Radio 4 sketch show — a harbinger of more free-form performance which will emerge from a generation less attached to set formats and nimble

At adapting for radio and digital sketches. A straight-through 90-minute play is a bigger ask. In the manner of Michael Frayn’s masterpiece Noises Off, The Comeback starts out with deceptively simply comedy as Ben and Alex try out lame new material with all the awkwardness and nervous conversational ticks which seem to be passed down from one generation of British male to the next in an indelible DNA code. It is all going perfectly miserably when one of the sozzled old-stagers lets slip that a Hollywood director is visiting the production. Ambitions fired, the two duos (played interchangeably at an increasingly madcap pace) compete for prominence. Backstage morphs into frontstage and props range from inexpertly-wielded taser guns to backstage lockers, beachballs, a house of cards and as much prop ephemera as you could dust down to celebrate a return to “real” theatre and its diverting whims. It is also (of necessity) a craftily simple production: this is hardly the time for expensive sets, with one slightly odd moment of beauty at the end, which needed a bit more thinking through.

Having your star actor tasered and locked in a backstage cupboard before being sent back to sit in the audience is a reminder that burlesque travesty is always about inversion

Friedman’s backing gifts the play a range of surprise star guests, hauled onto stage to be sent up by the two young comics, oblivious to their significance. It’s a trick as old as Angela Rippon and the late Des O’Connor being ritually humiliated by Morecambe and Wise — a pantomime for grown-ups. On our night, it was Gavin and Stacey’s Rob Brydon fitting neatly into a slapstick about nothing going right.

Having your star actor tasered and locked in a backstage cupboard before being sent back to sit in the audience is a reminder that burlesque travesty, from Shakespeare’s identity switches in The Comedy of Errors to Richard Bean’s brilliant adaptation of the commedia dell’arte triumph One Man Two Guvnors, is always about inversion — of fortunes, power or expectation.

The old-timers Sid and Jimmy harbour the oldest and most thwarted dream of actors down the ages: never to have to give it up or be superseded. Their Gen-Z avatars feel like the kind of talented, funny kids you meet at university or in their first jobs, hungry and anxious for fame which will also prove evanescent. Clint McKie, the (never glimpsed) Hollywood mogul roars into town and out again, a catalyst for chaos and mirth in the Greek tradition of a wandering god. The Comeback is not rich enough in its characterisations or development to be a great farce and it sags a bit in the middle. But it’s a very creditable attempt at giving audiences starved of performance a tasty amuse-gueule to tide us over to the sunlit uplands of 2021.

And if you aren’t able to see it, do have a look at Owen and Ashenden’s menu of online send ups of 2020, from Mum-on-Zoom — “You’re still mute, Mum, click the button. No, the one with the mic on it at the bottom left” — to the many ways to get fired during an online seminar. It’s just like real life at the moment — with a lot more laughs.

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