One of my biggest weaknesses is sad old men. I just can’t deal with them, especially lonely sad old men. They hit me very hard. End Of The Pier opens with just such a man – Bobby, played by Les Dennis – in a dressing gown, which scores several points just by costuming, especially when we see him wipe a mustard-covered knife on said dressing gown. I’m in for a bumpy ride.
Bobby is a comedian, or he was once. Now he’s mainly just a man who reminisces. In his cosy red-hued home with his golf clubs and old newspaper cuttings and posters advertising pier entertainment, he’s visited by his son, Michael (Blake Harrison), who he rarely sees. Michael himself is now a successful comedian, engaged and expecting a baby with a BBC comedy commissioner, on the up and up, it seems. Father and son are wary of each other, critical of each other’s jokes, and – Michael especially – prone to snapping.
Danny Robins has the two clash again and again over their instincts about what makes good comedy to show, above all, the resentment each has, which they try to suppress. Class is the biggest reason for this resentment, written into every difference between Bobby and Michael: panto and ignorant, ‘inappropriate’ jokes vs. lukewarm observational comedy in skinny jeans. Michael’s interminable set which opens the play, watched by his father, is very McIntyre, very Comedy Roadshow or Live at the Apollo, down to the garish design of his tour poster. He’s not very good. Though neither’s Bobby, really, and though it’s not essential for them to be as they wearily react to each other’s jokes, perhaps a play about stand-ups should show them off a little better.
While Michael seems to find his father’s old material – turning his family into the broadest of punchlines, going beyond “racialist” humour into fullblown racism – abhorrent, Bobby holds his son’s toothless men can’t put duvet covers on stuff in contempt, sees the hounding of celebrities in modern comedy as what’s really cruel. Robins has obvious affection for the old breed of comedian Bobby represents, even as he writes decisively to condemn him, and points explicitly to the rise of alternative comedy bringing about the domination of the non-working class, Chris Morris-type over a traditionally working class art form. “I wanted people to remember my jokes,” Bobby says, and my sad old men tolerance takes a near-fatal hit.
Race looms almost as large as class here. It was the recording and outcry over just one racist joke which cost Bobby his career, and which puts a strain (to put it mildly) on his relationship with Michael’s biracial fiance, Jenna. Tala Gouveia is clear-voiced and practically effervescent as Jenna, firmly upper middle-class and a London contrast with the forgotten, looked over parts of the country like Blackpool, where this play is set. She’s also evidence of how impossible race is to transcend; however high you might rank, there’s seemingly always someone to cut you down with an offhand “You don’t look like your voice.”
The characters argue over racism and classism, brought to boiling point by an action of Michael’s, and though Robins’ script often has a very ‘written’ quality to it, some things are put very well. End Of The Pier isn’t subtle, but it spares nothing in exploring how far white patience with progressive efforts might stretch. It feels, one character notes, as if they and their liberal, modern friends are forever preparing for an exam: that tedious and that paranoid. Robins is right to sense that interracial relationships, too, aren’t some miracle way to solve everything, no cast-iron indicator of goodness.
One of the strongest pillars of this play, and introduced in its last quarter, is Nitin Ganatra as Mohammed. Required as another face of comedy, it’s all to play for: if he isn’t good, the play becomes a different (more cynical) beast entirely. But from the moment he opens his mouth, Ganatra lights up the stage. His delivery lays Bobby and Michael in the dust, and only part of this is because the play requires him to: as audience, we really laugh in his set. Perhaps some of this laughter is the kind from nervous white liberals, but not all: it’s real and irrepressible, especially as, on press night, he decides to bait Miles Jupp, foolishly sat in the first row.
The play’s positioning of Mohammed as something new, urgent and previously lacking is simplistic, and Jenna, in her role at the BBC, would in reality have come across such race-conscious, blunt humour before. Non-white comedians and artists aren’t inherently more “truthful” than anyone else, but in Michael’s reaction to Mohammed’s skill, I do see something true.
Sometimes it does feel as if the resentment and hatred we see in people like Michael, which bubbles up in white moderates and conservatives alike, manifests as a certain fear. Specifically, a fear that we might be as good as white people, that we might in some cases be better. And we aren’t, we simply sometimes offer things white people haven’t yet or aren’t able to, but that alone is far too much for some. And so we play out this negotiation between us, the white dominators of western culture, and the nervous, self-preserving versions of us which note when we’re the only non-white comedian on the bill that night, the only non-white playwright in that season, the single non-white person in the room.
The non-white members of the press night audience are scattered almost perfectly throughout the Park, a few to each seating section. End Of The Pier implies that things can’t stay the same, and that they haven’t so far. From where I sit, I think about this.
End of the Pier is on until 11 August 2018 at Park Theatre. Click here for more details.