Tony Stavearcre’s one man play Jigsy probes the underbelly of old style stand up comedy and simultaneously provides a love letter (of sorts) to Liverpool. Small wonder that the city’s Royal Court Theatre has chosen the piece for its first experiment in streaming and profile raising during these uncertain times. The play looks at the considerable comedic heritage of the area, throws in some nostalgic reminiscing which highlights the Liverpudlian indomitable spirit and cracks the odd joke or two. The setting is the dressing room (though that’s rather over egging it) of a northern club slash bingo hall and is set in 1996.
Tickling the nation’s funny bone that year were shows such as Absolutely Fabulous, Drop The Dead Donkey, Men Behaving Badly and Father Ted; comedy in a rather different vein from that explored in Jigsy. This is the old school funny business of the northern stand up comedy circuit as celebrated in shows such as The Comedians; the sort of show that was phased out of the TV schedules in the early 80s. Still prevalent in 1996, however, were traditional game show formats such as Family Fortunes hosted by a young Les Dennis. A not quite so young Les Dennis takes the solo role in this one man play.
Jigsy (we are never given any further name details) is unreconstructed and proud of it. He goes on stage with a pint in one hand and probably a cigarette in the other; he tells jokes with a proper punchline. For all that, he is virtually washed up, trading on past glories (if they ever really existed), filling in time between the games of bingo that the punters are really there for and treating all aspects of his life as a continuous stand up performance. Even as he comes offstage, Jigsy can’t stop with the anecdotes and the one liners; it is the only thing that seems to give his life purpose. However, as the monologue progresses he also reveals something of the man behind the mask, his family, his upbringing, his work on the docks and his attempts at cracking the comedy circuit. Needless to say he has not been a success at any of them. Jigsy laughs a lot at his own jokes – probably because nobody else does.
The writing is somewhat uneven and doesn’t have enough of a sense of purpose as Jigsy keeps reiterating the point that in order to get through this weary thing called life you have to laugh a lot and keep smiling through the tears. There’s a whole section about the scandal of the submarine HMS Thetis which sank during trials in Liverpool Bay and the Admiralty decided that 99 men should die rather than compromise the integrity of the hull by drilling through it to allow air in. I hadn’t been aware of this event before and it was an interesting subject which probably needs a dramatisation of its own, but I don’t think Staveacre did enough to connect it to the main narrative and it is certainly far from funny.
However, as a showcase for Les Dennis’ talents this piece more than passes muster. It’s an interesting rebranding for Dennis who has since gone on to appear with the RSC at Stratford. He has a good eye for detail and captures the demeanour and delivery of the comic type he is portraying. Dressed in a seedy outfit, he swigs continuously from a pint pot and looks at any moment as if he is about to break out into “Mr Cellophane” from Chicago. He is racked by a bad cough and at one point we think he may have had a heart attack – unlike some of his comedy heroes it would be typical of Jigsy to pass on in a dilapidated dressing room rather than on stage. A number of these comics are recalled in anecdotes such as the time people flocked to Ken Dodd’s court appearance for tax evasion treating it like one of his performances. Dennis proves a dab hand at the impersonations doing, among others Billy Bennett, Al Read, Tommy Cooper and Bernard Manning.
It’s an interesting way for the venue to raise its profile in these uncertain times and I suspect that the announcement today that theatres can return to indoor performances from August 1st will find many more shows of this kind in preparation. No problem with social distancing when performing in a solo show. However, watching this last night also was a forcible reminder of the absolute necessity for an audience. Simply put, too many of the lines fell flat because there was nobody to respond to them. Many’s the time a comedy has been killed stone dead for want of the sound of reactive merriment. Perhaps shows are going to have to do what football and cricket have done by introducing crowd sounds at matches to create atmosphere. Canned laughter at the theatre? Heaven help us all!
Jigsy is available on You Tube. Click here
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