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The Theatreguide.London Review

Only When I Laugh
Arcola Theatre       Spring 2009

Jack Shepherd's softly bemused comedy is a love letter to Variety, that popular entertainment form that flourished in the first half of the last century - the kind of stage show in which you were likely to see a comedian, a pop singer and some dancing girls, along with acrobats, animal acts, magicians and anyone else who could hold a stage for ten minutes or so.

The play is set backstage in a Leeds theatre sometime in the late 1950s.The second-string comic flirts with one of the dancers while his manager-wife tries to cut a better deal for him. The female half of a Fred-and-Ginger act is a bit of a lush, and the lead comic a full-blown one. The band is stuck in traffic and the theatre manager is slowly going nuts.

Much of the fun of the evening lies in the plotless peep behind the curtain, and the pleasure of being in the company of these mildly eccentric characters.

There is a plot of sorts - a girl singer has just been added to the bill, and head office wants her to get top billing and the star dressing room, raising the ire of the veteran comic who is used to both.

But those complications, including the bender the comic goes on and the job of sobering him up for showtime, are just excuses to keep these characters coming in and out, enriching our sense of this lost world.

Indeed, the weakest moments in the play come when the author briefly tries to get serious or to give this airy trifle some sociological weight - when the comic exposes his love-hate relationship to his working-class fans, or when he argues with a local censor over the value of mildly bawdy humour.

Almost inevitably, the characters are close to stereotypes, from the sozzled veteran comic through the company lecher to the prissy censor. But they're all fun characters, and the actors flesh them out just enough to suggest some reality.

Jack Shepherd himself plays the manager, with the assurance of knowing the character inside-out. Jim Bywater walks the line between outrageous and loveable as the comedian.

Some of the others double roles, leading to some quick offstage costume changes, with Nicole Schneider switching instantly and convincingly between the sinking-into-despair ballroom dancer and the all-business newcomer.

Nicky Henson directs with a light touch that never tries to make the play more than the sweet valentine it is.

Perhaps never quite as funny as it might want to be, Only When I Laugh is a warm and pleasant journey into nostalgia that you can enjoy even if you weren't there when it was all really happening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Only When I laugh - Arcola  Theatre 2009


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