26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 54


Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (National Theatre)

Love Upon the Throne (The Bush)

A wonderful carry on

Sheridan Morley

Not since John Osborne's The Enter- tainer, and that has been all of 40 years, have we had a play which deals as lethally or as brilliantly with the moment in a comic's life when the raised eyebrow and the fixed grin become a death mask: Terry Johnson's Cleo, Camping Emmanuelle and Dick (directed by the author himself on the Lyttleton stage of the National) is the best and bleakest comedy of the year, and one which deals with the real lives, in so far as they ever had them, of the three principal stars of the Cany On sequence of 30 or so low-budget screen farces all shot between 1956 and 1978.

By the time we join the cast and crew backstage, at some point midway through the series, things are beginning to fall apart both on and off the set; scripts are already as tired and repetitive as the real lives of those who have to play them, Kenneth Williams is already suicidally gloomy about the work he is being forced to perform, Barbara Windsor is watching her jealous husband go to jail for armed robbery, and Sid James, he of the dirty laugh and the need to molest every girl who comes through his dressing-room door, has already seen a vision of the death that awaits him, a death already presaged by that of his old partner Tony Hancock.

Johnson's genius here, as in his earlier Dead Funny, has been to construct a stage farce far funnier than any of the ones that his cast are ostensibly shooting, and also once again to focus on the reality that inside every comic is a deeply sad and dis- turbed man or woman trying to get out and confront a world which only wants to make them as unhappy as only a comic can be.

I suppose those of us who, in real life, knew and loved one of the other characters here, the late Imogen Hassall, might por- tentously wish to argue that she deserves rather better, especially in the light of her suicide, than to be recalled merely as yet one more of Sid's casual, heartless dress- ing-room affairs, but as Johnson goes on to suggest that the real suicide in that caravan was of Sid himself, it is hard not to forgive the author a little location licence. ■ The casting here is also just wonderful; Adam Godley's Kenneth Williams may from time to time drift dangerously close to Stanley Baxter, another comic hero of the period, but he has perfectly caught Ken- neth's constantly wounded pride and that sense you had of him always sitting around waiting to be insulted. Samantha Spiro's Barbara Windsor is also an amazingly lookalike-soundalike creation, the only one of the comics that Johnson treats with any real love or respect for her genuinely good nature. Kenneth MacDonald as the heavy sent by her gangster husband to keep an eye on her affair with Sid may be little more than a thug from central casting, but Jacqueline Defferary as the dresser who can never quite manage to tell Sid she is his illegitimate daughter, and Gina Bellman as Imo Hassall are both heartbreaking in their attempt to crack Sid's armoury of despair- ing laughter, while as this central figure, Geoffrey Hutchings, in the performance of the evening and his own career, gives us a Sid James that is breathtaking in its accura- cy of impersonation and understanding of a deeply unhappy man who would go any- where for a laugh except into the arms of the few people who genuinely loved or understood him.

The idea of the clown with the heart of sheer misery is not exactly a new one, but what Johnson does here, watched over by the shadows of Hancock and Joe Orton and others who died violently for their laughs, is to capture that borderline moment when it all starts to come apart at the seams; as one of these desperate enterainers notes, 'just when you're begin- ning to be really tired of life you've got your sixties to look forward to'.

Nor does he ever forget that he is writing a comedy: 'Ronnie', says the gangster with the gun who has been sent by him to watch over Barbara and the assaults on her by Sid between shots, 'says it's not so much the money you owe him, nor you shagging his wife, but you shagging his wife while owing him the money what really hurts.'

There are better laughs here than in all the Carry On movies put together, but behind them all lies the real agony of peo- ple who were literally dying for a laugh. Johnson's play is as potent a lament for the end of the Carry On era as was The Enter- tainer for the end of music-hall, and in its own way manages to capture a moment in British showbiz history when it too was consumed by hatred for itself and its audi- ence: 'Never many anyone,' says Sid at one point, 'just find someone you really hate and buy them a house.'

Hopeless at organising their own love lives, whether gay or straight, able only to create a creaking and repetitive series of farces out of their own reality, these char- acters are lost forever now to a world where it is thought more important to remain politically correct than get a belly- laugh out of ancient prejudices. Say what you like about current stand-up comedy, and I choose to say as little as possible, it will never give us these giants of the old knockabout farces, nor their ability to turn a laugh not just on a dime, but on the twist of a knife in their own backs. If you want to see how and where and why true British comedy committed its own lingering, gasp- ing suicide, this great tragi-comedy will tell it all the way it was and never will be again.

And as a footnote, at the Bush, but only until the end of next week, Love Upon the Throne is also a deeply funny and anarchi- . cally touching slice of contemporary life, this one based on the doomed marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana up to the moment of their parting; as played by the entire cast of the now Royal National Theatre of Brent, Dr Desmond Oliver Din- gle and his hardworking associate Ray- mond Box (Patrick Barlow and John Ramm), they too emerge as just another couple of deeply disturbed people doing their best to survive in an alien culture, and once again their profound sadness with themselves and each other is the cause of all our guilty, onlooking mirth. Death, as they say, is easy; comedy is what's hard.