I had never heard of 1960s English TV comedian Tony Hancock before a friend of mine said before Christmas, “Hey, Nat! Len Granato’s doing a Hancock show at Centenary. Get some reviewer tickets and I’ll come with you.” Being the terrific friend that I am, I immediately forgot all about it until the morning of January 10, when my esteemed editor called to see if I was still available to do it.
Luckily, my friend was still free, so we trotted off to see the Stagewise production of An Evening with the Lad Himself at Chelmer Community Centre. Of course we got lost on the way there the theatre being a bit hard to find for the uninitiated, located between a train line and a bowls club. But get there we did, and a good thing it was too. “Evening” comprises two one-act pieces, one simple and comic, the other dark, intense and thoughtful. And David Bell as the central character deserves acclaim for his performance, switching effortlessly from the ridiculous to the sublime.
But first things first. Tony Hancock, according to the program and backed up by my friend, was a giant of British comedy. His program “Hancock’s Half Hour” was an international hit, and can still be seen on PayTV apparently (I don’t have PayTV. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this now. I’d be blanked out in front of the History Channel). The first act of the evening is “The Blood Donor”, one of these “half-hours”. It stars Hancock as his exaggerated onscreen self, a pompously entertaining man, a self-professed expert on everything, but in reality an ignorant buffoon. It’s the fun part of the evening. The plot is simple Hancock goes to give blood, and spends most of the time telling anyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t) how generous he is for doing so.
David Bell has the buffoonery down for this act. His mannerisms and voice all reflect a man who most of us would sum up with the word “git”. He gives a strong central performance, which is vital to the success of the extended sketch, especially here, when his timing and characterisation are not really matched by the rest of the cast. The roles are really one-dimensional and silly to begin with it is Hancock’s half hour after all, and no doubt the writers (Ray Galton and Alan Simpson) planned the supporting characters to be no more than perfunctory. So although the cast here are fine in those supporting roles, they don’t add any extra sparkle. They are great as foils, but if it wasn’t for Bell’s energy, the half hour would seem more like two hours.
I’m not one of those people who believe drama has more integrity than comedy, but certainly Hancock’s Last Half Hour, the second half of the show, is the one really worth seeing. Hancock, as I mentioned before, was a great clown. And like many other great clowns, he was also in real life a very sad man, plagued by alcohol abuse, nerves and depression (think Peter Sellers or even Spike Milligan). Hancock finally had enough in 1968 and killed himself while in Sydney to film some TV shows. Heathcote Williams wrote a fictional account of the last moments of his life, which Bell performs with such gusto and commitment that I felt had I been American, I would have given it a standing ovation. (It’s just personal choice that I never stand it’s got nothing at all to do with my laziness).
It’s a very surreal piece, full of ideas and action, all set in a hotel room. Hancock, in a sleep-deprived, vodka-induced bout of craziness, veers from quiet reflection to absurd dancing, from vengeful anger to a sense of hopelessness. And it’s very convincing Bell conveys all the emotions truthfully, with no sense of artifice, or worse still “method acting”. Shudder. Bell was able to slip into the skin of Hancock, but shed it to be quite jovial and relaxed after the performance. That’s what Alec Guinness used to do, and no one could doubt his skill. You’ve also got to give credit to Bell for going great guns in what could fairly be called the hottest theatre in Brisbane. I guess the only drawback was the topical ’60s references, many of which slipped me by, mainly my parents’ fault for not having me 30 years earlier.
Len Granato as director has done a fine job Bell’s performance is great and the set design is simple and effective for both halves but I do feel he could have spent more time on the supporting cast of “The Blood Donor”. I also wonder whether the theatre might be able to arrange an agreement with the bowls club next door to keep their music down until after shows finish. The strains of pop music took some of the focus off Hancock’s last moments.
Wow. This is a far cry from my normal bogan reviews. I’ve actually used the word “artifice”. Next I’ll be saying “juxtaposition”. When I do, someone slap me. In layman’s terms, “Evening” is worth the ticket price for anyone who enjoys a fine performance, or likes reliving the “good old days” of British comedy. It’s well targeted for Stagewise’s/Centenary’s audience, and finally, the beer and wine at the bar are pretty reasonable. Now if that ain’t a reason to go, I don’t know what is!