The King’s Theatre presents Canned Laughter, “a funny play about being funny”, written by Ed Curtis with Allan Stewart. Based in both the present and the 1970s comedy circuit, Canned Laughter follows a trio and the drama and loss which plagues their careers; a comedy tinged with tragedy.
Allan Stewart, Andy Gray, and Grant Stott are more well known at the Kings Theatre for their appearances in the annual pantomime. This fun and camaraderie between the three is still blatant. This is perhaps what is most grabbing about the play – the obvious enjoyment and excitement the cast exude in their performances. We cannot help but get swept up in this as their characters stories progress. Not only have the characters of Alec, Gus and Rory worked closely alongside each other, and formed a friendship which only that can create, but the the actors playing them have too; creating a believability which is to be admired. Gabriel Quigley provides an engaging performance as Mags, adding another level to the relationships, and a reasonable voice and stillness in the sea of nerves and heightened emotions.
That being said, the characters are not complicated or multifaceted. There is a certain predictability of their personalities. Perhaps this is to do with the classic troupe of troubled performers and the cut-throat show-business which Canned Laughter subscribes too – it is, to some extent, a story we have all heard before. This does not take away from the piece as a whole – we are still entertained and eventually pulled into this world being presented to us. This is helped by the skilled audience asides and interactions, which never fall flat, nor are awkward. The cast must be applauded for the talented way in which they involve the audience in multiple ways, throughout the whole performance.
These asides were needed. The nature of the plot meant that the use of flashbacks and soliloquies sometimes made the storyline confusing and convoluted. It took a while to adjust to the method of storytelling, meaning that one was left feeling that there must have been plot points which one had missed. However, the audience involvement kept us present and engaged, meaning we were never far from picking up the thread again. This was furthered by the impressive stage set, designed by Francis O’Conner, with admirable lighting and sound by Ben Cracknell and Richard Brooker, respectively; which transported us effectively between the present time, the 1970s, back stage at the comedy club, and from the small stages of small comedy clubs to the London Palladium.
Most striking was the way in which Canned Laughter fully evoked the 1970s – the personalities and work of Morecambe and Wise, and Tommy Cooper was a clear influence and inspiration. The play was nostalgic of this era, a homage perhaps to the comedians’ footsteps which these performers were following in. While charming and engaging, the some problematic elements of this time were still present, meaning that some jokes seemed to fall flat – they were of a different time.
Perhaps, then, Canned Laughter should not be looked at as simply a “funny play”. The aim of the play was to not just make people laugh, but make a comment on this turbulent and exciting tie in the comedy world and highlight the pitfalls and difficulties those involved in it fell into. Certainly, this aim was eventually, if not clearly or immediately, achieved. Often, the jokes made were old-fashioned, and sometimes did not sit quite right with a contemporary audience. However, this was not the central aspect of Canned Laughter.
Canned Laughter was an entertaining evening which after some time, left me thinking differently about both the nature of comedy and the toll it can take on a performer. Canned Laughter was more than just it’s face value of “a funny play about being funny”.
Canned Laughter runs until the 2nd April, at Kings Theatre.