Having contributed material to numerous TV comedy panel shows and written gags for performers as diverse as Joan Rivers and Basil Brush, writer Danny Robins knows his way around a joke and understands the power that it can hold. In this thought-provoking and very funny new play he explores that power and how humour is different things to different generations. But while the “victims” change, are we just shifting our cruelty from one group to another?
An exceptionally good Les Dennis stars as Bobby, formerly one half of a comedy double act in the “my-wife’s-so-fat” tradition who were the toast of Saturday night TV with an audience of 20 million before a misplaced gag about race was deemed a step too far and their career was scuppered overnight. This coming just as a new generation of “alternative” comedians was waiting in the wings to sweep away the old guard.
Now he shuffles around his drab Blackpool home with faded posters of past glories adorning the walls, not bothering to get dressed and just waiting for the next panto; his last connection to the world he once dominated.
Into his life comes his son Michael (Blake Harrison) with whom he has a remote and difficult relationship, a situation made more tense because Michael is one of the new breed of “observational” comedians who despise the old-school club comics and all they stood for.
But the reason for Michael’s visit is not just to announce the impending birth of his first child with BBC comedy commissioner Jenna (Tala Gouveia), but because of something that threatens to ruin his career and destroy his image as a comedic man of the people and darling of the right-on set.
As details of this shattering event unfold and Michael becomes more dependent, albeit reluctantly, on Bobby’s help it become clear that both men’s lives will never be quite the same again. And worse still, the shock wave will destroy Michael’s relationship with Jenna as his real self is exposed.
Robins has crafted a play that manages to prick our conscience and question what we laugh at, but at the same time be darkly funny and laced through with an aching melancholy. And he’s blessed with a quartet of quite exceptional performances. As well as the superb Dennis, Blake Harrison is outstanding as Michael, who undergoes all sorts of personal torture and struggles to retain a bluff exterior as Michael’s hypocrisy is exposed. Tala Gouveia does well to flesh out what is a rather underwritten part as Jenna, a character who comes across like a melange of media stereotypes.
And last but certainly not least, and although not appearing until the second act, Nitin Ganatra as the catalyst to this desperate chain of events turns in a performance so assured that it will leave audience members only familiar with him from his role in EastEnders open mouthed in admiration.
End of the Pier is at the Park Theatre until 11 August. Book tickets throughticketmaster