First published in The Times, Thursday March 17 2016
Over the past decade the comedy performers Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott have developed a hugely successful partnership as mainstays of the annual pantomime at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre. The trio’s infectious performing chemistry is once again on display in this “straight” comedy, written by Ed Curtis in collaboration with Stewart and currently on tour.
The enjoyable, sometimes surprisingly tough, play was doubtless conceived in part to allow these performers to stretch themselves and show off a hitherto untapped serious side while leaving plenty of room for what they do best: lark around onstage and interact directly with the audience.
Pic: Douglas Robertson
As a piece of drama, Canned Laughter holds together well for much of its two-hour running time. Set partly during the heyday of light entertainment in the 1970s, the plot revolves around the relationship between Alec (Stewart), Gus (Gray) and Rory (Stott), old pals and founder members of Wee Three (geddit?), a Scottish comedy act hovering on the fringes of the big time. An invitation to perform on the television variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium offers the chance of a big break, but it also proves the beginning of the end for Wee Three, not to mention the characters’ friendship.
Unsurprisingly, the show is at its most uplifting in the variety sequences, performed against the shabby glitz of Francis O’Connor’s set. Typical of these scenes is a hilarious rendition of The Manhattan Transfer’s Chanson D’Amour, with Stewart singing, Gray going bananas on maracas and “rat-a-tats” and Stott as ever graciously fulfilling the role of sardonic straight man. Stewart in particular appears to be playing a version of himself – his career took off following an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Pic: Douglas Robertson
Where the play, which is directed by Curtis, is less sure-footed is in the dramatic sequences, particularly in the opening ten minutes. You can feel all three performers straining for the required understatement, desperate to get back to the serious business of being funny. The arrival of Gabriel Quigley as Rory’s theatrical agent sister adds some much-needed vitality to these scenes.
Meanwhile, not unreasonably, audience members hover on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to get in on the act. Clearly, someone forgot to send out the memo reminding everyone this isn’t panto season. There’s heckling in places, wolf whistles, oohs and ahs throughout, sometimes at the most inappropriate moments. At its best, though, this enjoyable slice of popular entertainment also illustrates just why Stewart, Gray and Stott make such a formidable team.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mar 15-19; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, Mar 24-26; King’s, Edinburgh, Mar 29-Apr 2