What happens when you cross strong performances with an unadventurous premise? JAKE ARNOTT finds out.

70s bernard manning comedians Corpus Playroom Drama ed eustace freddie crossley harry michell jack mosedale jake arnott Max Upton stephen bermingham Theatre

Corpus Playroom, 1st-5th May, 7pm, £5-6

Directed by Harry Michell

[rating: 3/5]

Clearly, this play was once important. Written in 1975, it highlights the racism and sexism of the ’70s, attacking the breed of stand-up that roamed working men’s clubs, feeding on stereotypes of stupid Irishmen, greedy Jews and nagging, sexually arid women. Last night, Harry Michell’s cast took to it with conviction, earnestly creating a very watchable drama, but they couldn’t make up for the fact that Bernard Manning is dead.

Guru-cum-has-been-stand-up Eddie Waters, played with sadness and sensitivity by Max Upton, tells his night class that comedy can reveal truth. Challoner, a greasy cockney weasel of an agent – played spot-on by Stephen Bermingham – offers Eddie’s students an alternative: win the cheapest laughs by betraying Eddie’s principles with open bigotry and get a contract as a working standup. A comedian of the Manning school, Challoner’s over-simplified character is painfully dated. In the 1970s, a TV show called The Comedians brought stand-up to the living room, and Challoner’s brand of casual bigotry was the standard. Tell jokes with that attitude on Live at the Apollo today, however, and you’d be booed off (unless you’re ‘provocative’, bearded twat Frankie Boyle).

Comedians will always look for the cheap laugh, but stand-ups from ethnic minorities or working class backgrounds can now assume that a London audience isn’t inherently prejudiced against them. Comedians doesn’t bear hindsight because it’s too obvious that Challoner is wrong; it’s no longer contentious to suggest that blind prejudice is evil.

What is more surprising than its datedness is the play’s apparent intention not to be very funny. Playwright Trevor Griffiths po-facedly insists that comedy has a serious side, but refuses to prove it. In the second act, we get to watch the stand-ups at work, and while a few of the jokes provoke a titter, the bulk of any comedy comes from watching them bomb. The two protagonists that we’re told have talent, Eddie and his protégé Gethin Price, refuse to be comic.

Eddie, apparently, is too traumatised to be funny anymore – looking around for a way to make comedy seem even more serious, Griffiths brings in the Holocaust for last-minute gravitas. Angry Young Man Gethin (Ed Eustace going at it with an admirable gusto and committed baldness, only occasionally drifting into incoherent Northern rage) is too furious at the North/South divide and the oppression of the working class. His stage act is disturbing, dark and surprising, but would have benefitted from the foil of some actual comedy.

There are no weak performances in this well-directed production, and moments of emotional climax are well-handled. Notably, Jack Mosedale channels wonderfully the first night nerves of a genuinely brave comedian, and the hypnotically doll-faced Freddie Crossley is a disturbingly accurate ventriloquist’s dummy. But the show feels subdued.

The Corpus Playroom’s bizarre shape raises ill-addressed sight-line issues, isolating the audience further, and the debate about comedy feels weak when what is preached isn’t practised, and when the play’s central arguments no longer pack a punch. This is a solid production, well meriting its three stars, but Comedians lacks the subtlety to provide a relevant commentary today.