SUNDAY 6TH DECEMBER 2015 – Blue Room at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton – Review by Tate James
My prior knowledge of Tommy Cooper extended to a red fez and his untimely death on live television. Outside of that, I knew nothing of his life, his career or even his specific brand of comedy, so I arrived to watch ‘The Tommy Cooper Show’ at the Blue Room in the Floral Pavilion with an open mind.
It seems that prior knowledge is not a prerequisite when booking tickets, although yes, a large portion of the audience were fans already, and no doubt most of them, like my parents watching with me, were watching ‘Live From Her Majesty’s’ as Tommy slipped through the curtain.
Tommy’s awkward size and unusual appearance meant he struggled to achieve his first big break. He met his future wife Gwen (played by Sharon Byatt) while performing for the troops and with her support he secured an agent (played, along with many other parts, by Gareth Jones) and his career was able to take off. As a heavy smoker and drinker with a family back home, and a busy schedule of theatre tours, club gigs and tv appearances, Tommy’s health began to deteriorate, culminating in a fatal heart attack whilst performing on April 15th 1984.
The format of this theatrical incarnation of Tommy Cooper is driven by excerpts of comedy taken from his live performances, with the chronology of his life story woven through. It doesn’t try to be a staged biography, nor a recreation of his “best-bits”. It is somewhere in between, focusing on the man that became the comedian and the comedy that made the man. This Tommy addresses the audience directly as the real Tommy would during his act. Large portions of the action take place on stage, with recreations of some of his most memorable tricks and acts, then the narrative will switch to the story offstage: meeting his wife, auditions for the BBC, saying goodbye to his son and even a brilliant moment meeting Queen Elizabeth II.
The performances are dedicated and committed from the small cast of three. The direction by Lisa Taylor-Ellis is well-paced and simple, maintaining the flow as the story shifts between on and off stage. Sharon Byatt, the stoic wife, is in fine voice in her moments of singing, but it is in her scenes with Tommy and, later, with their son when we truly see her shine. She is warm throughout, her strong will and heart matching Tommy’s statuesque demeanour: the Beauty to his Beast. Gareth Jones has a lot of fun in his various roles throughout the 2 hour presentation. His weathered agent, who wants what is best for his very difficult client, balances against Tommy’s erratic decision making and attention span; and his role as Tommy’s son in the second half is soft and well-placed. His highlight though for me is a small cameo appearance following a Royal Variety scene, but no spoilers here!
And now on to the man himself. They are big shoes to fill; size 14 to be exact. Daniel Taylor demonstrates a masterclass in nuance, a perfectly timed awareness of physical comedy and an impressive command over a room full of punters waiting to see if he can emulate a genius. He delivered by the fez-load. Even with no previous experience of Tommy himself, I laughed from start to finish at the hilarity of the sketches. I have since come away and, before writing this, watched old clips of Tommy and can now attest to the accuracy of Daniel’s portrayal. The fact that Taylor penned the play, along with Ian Carroll, is apparent in his performance as the greatest attention to detail was paid; the twist of the hair, the breathy laugh, the twitch of a hand. More than capturing the style Taylor was able to capture the heart in many of the moments of soliloquy: the finest being his memory of trying on a fez at a market stall much later in the piece; a beautiful, soft and poignant touch.
The Tommy Cooper Show is growing momentum and pace, refining and evolving along the way, and is a perfect tribute to a comedian who paved the way for the likes of Reeves and Mortimer, Armstrong and Miller, Keith Lemon and many more. His outrageous style of humour is still relevant and funny today to audiences old and new, and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen this version to go online, find when it’ll be near them, and book tickets now… “Just like that!”