Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Only When I Laugh - Arcola Theatre

Only When I Laugh by Jack Shephard
Director: Nicky Henson

Reviewer: Becky Middleton

In a culture of bland reality TV shows and ‘talented’ Britons trying their luck at the fame game in front of over-tanned and over-paid judges, it is wonderful to be reminded of the bygone days of variety shows and real entertainment in this pleasing production.

The action in Only When I Laugh is centred around the prestigious dressing room number one, a highly sought after, and slightly shabby,
indication of status on the bill for the show in which all the cast members are involved.

Set in post-war Leeds, the introduction of well-spoken Londoner Janey Shore (Nicole Schneider) causes some di
sgruntlement with the star, whose dressing room she is allocated. Jack Shepherd, better known as 90’s TV cop Wycliffe and co-star of blockbuster The Golden Compass, is the brilliant and officious stage manager who struggles to control the actors who are preoccupied with their own agendas.

Sam Bolton (Artistic Director Neil Sheppeck) is concentrating on his next illicit liaison with dancer Rita (Stephanie Thomas) before his controlling wife Hilda (Loraine Metcalfe) turns up. Tom Foley (Nick Earnshaw) is unsuccessfully trying to take Janey out to dinner in a town that closes down after 10.30pm.

The plot seamlessly moves forward, the actors working extremely well together to propel the performance to its denouement amid an often frenzied overlapping of egos and comedy moments.

The script not only shows the backstage of the Leeds Empire in the ‘50s, but it also goes behind the scenes on alcoholism, adultery and the fickleness of fame; issues confronted with skill and ease. But it is Jim Bywater, who plays Reg Henson, the bill-topping comic, who steals the show.

Nothing is left to the audience’s imagination when Bywater bears all, which serves to highlight the star’s eccentricity. His ranting and insightful social commentary continue right up until the second he is ushered, late, ‘on stage’ for the variety show, but instead of delivering a ground shattering conclusion to his soliloquy, I was left feeling like something was missing.

Only When I Laugh runs at the Arcola until Sat 2nd May
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