Saturday, 23 March 2013

Playing Gethin Price in Comedians by Trevor Griffith.

Some considered thoughts about being involved in a production of Trevor Griffith's play, 'Comedians' at the Lace Market Theatre, Nottingham, in April 1995.

Notes from the Lace Market Theatre programme.

We work through laughter, not for it. (…) A joke releases the tension, says the un-sayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation... there's very little won't take a joke. But when a joke bases itself upon a distortion – a 'stereotype', perhaps – and gives the lie to the truth, as to win a laugh and stay in favour, we've moved a way from the comic art and into the world of entertainment and slick success.” (Trevor Griffiths, Comedians, Act 1)

I think that the quotation above is a key to the heart of the play in terms of determining a dangerous/ harsh truth through laughter (often based on an element of distort and cruelty) and the 'staying in favour' aspect refers, in my opinion, to the pulling back of the 'punch' line to a gentler and perhaps more publicly acceptable definition of funny = light entertainment. The cruel humour of Gethin Price serves to demonstrate the bruised skeleton of the future of no holds barred comedy. A true theatre of cruelty.

This particular production's audition for an all make cast was open to women and the role of Sammy Samuels was offered to Anne Bone. The casting added an additionally interesting male/female often, potentially violent, conflict between the characters Gethin Price and Ms Sammy Samuels. The caretaker was also cast as a female role and humorously played by Barbara Fisher.

The first production of the play ' Comedians' by Trevor Griffiths was performed at the Nottingham Playhouse, February 20th 1975 and then at the Old Vic: September 24th 1975. Jonathan Pryce played Gethin Price and Jimmy Jewel, Eddie Waters.
Nottingham Playhouse and Richard Eyre as they appear in the original programme
The Lace Market Theatre production.

Story in brief.

Eddie Waters is an older, formerly professional, comedian generously imparting his skills to a class of mixed ability, would be working class comedians. He is written as a man who stopped being funny at a point in his life and rarely says anything funny through the whole drama. He teaches them to look for the truth: the implication is that society can be changed by persuasion. His main principles are that the comedians confront/reject comedy that reinforces stereotypes, that attacks gay people, the Irish, the blacks, women or a particularly 1970s comedy scapegoat, the Pakistanis. Interestingly, this play pre-dated the rise of alternative comedy in the 1980s and practically leaks sexism and racism from every sweaty pore, deliberately.
Water's students are due to perform their acts to a live audience in a Bingo Club and to a Mr Bert Challenor, and old foe of Waters who can offer the most talented members of the group a contract to play the working men's clubs.
Vince Handley as George McBrain
There are two staged venues: the classroom where the evening class is held; a bingo hall where they perform and then back in the classroom when the performance is over. Bert Challenor gives them a preparatory chat before they leave the safety of the class and insists on the need to be entertaining and that the audience is their paymaster. He perceives the entertainer, Max Bygraves, to be the ultimate standard of comic perfection. Gethin Price is disgusted at this news and has changed his comedy act at the last minute much to Eddie Waters dismay and surprise. Gethin is seen by Waters as the shining star of the group and is considered by the rest of the group as a teacher's pet and a strange character.

Divided between Waters and Challenor's opposing views, most of the class have moments of doubt about the forthcoming event, and start to reconsider their comedic futures and the desperate hope of escaping their dead end jobs.

Gethin Price performs a very different act to what has been expected in rejection to Eddie Water's ideals. During his performance, Price, paying tribute to Grock, the famous clown, wears a white face and launches an attack on a pair of dummies, a man and woman in evening dress. He pins a flower on the woman's dress and blood appears. Eddie Waters is hurt to find that Price's act is fuelled by hate, lacking in compassion and, as far as Waters is concerned, the truth. Comedic truth/ liberating truth. At the end of a dispiriting evening after the others have left, Waters and Price bitterly argue about the purpose of comedy. The raging Price explains that he favours revolution against gradual reform.
                                                         Stuart Power as Eddie Waters.

Eddie Waters fights to regain his moral ground and explains to Price that he once went to a German Prison of War camp after the war and he was attracted and also repelled by what his intellectual and unexpectedly erotic feelings gave lie to there.

The play ends on a quasi optimistic note but with shadows of doubt from all the participants. Two are chosen by Bert Challenor to get contracts to work the clubs and the rest are rejected. Throughout the play a bitter dark vein of comedy prevails. End.

I was attracted to the role of Gethin Price after seeing a TV version of the play with Jonathan Pryce as Gethin. I patiently waited years to be offered an opportunity to play this part and it was my first role at the Lace Market Theatre in 1995. My favourite part of the rehearsals was when I had some time to look at the role having learnt a lot of his dialogue and to find a way for the character to inhabit the stage. I virtually looked like a skinhead so an aggressive walk was created, exaggerated and toned down for realism. I like that kind of approach. My accent was a whiny Manchester accent with hints of danger, knowing bitterness and sarcasm.

Although the comedy 'act' for Gethin was written out in the script there was a lot of opportunities for the 'action' to be improvised, i.e: the Kung Fu, the aggression toward the models and the audience themselves and the upper middle class. Any actor who plays this role must love the variety that Gethin's 'act' provides.

Review in Arts Extra (Nottingham Evening Post) by Joan Appleton.


Comedy is a serious business. The would be comics in Trevor Griffith's powerful play 'Comedians', which the Lace Market Theatre presents this week, go through a rigorous training under 'old pro' Eddie Waters, played movingly by Stuart Power.

The Murray Brothers (Steve Herring and Andrew Haynes) come hilariously to grief, the two Irish boys (Vince Handley and Keith Milne) turn in predictably funny performances.

The Jewish comic, originally a man but played here by Anne Bone, had a nice line in mock aggressive humour.

But the real aggression comes from Gethin Price, a violent man driven by hatred and resentment played brilliantly by Philip Lowe as a weasely white faced clown.

If humour, as Griffiths says, has to be based on the truth, then perhaps his is the best kind. Only you don't laugh.

Cynthia March directs the ensemble, which includes a morose caretaker (Barbara Fisher), a lost Indian (Adrian Perkins) and a smooth Cockney agent (John Hunt) with fine attention to detail.

Martin Hooper's set, a grimy classroom which becomes, after the interval, a sparkling Bingo Club, leaves little to the imagination.

Twenty years after the play first opened, the boundaries of what we may laugh at has widened. Comics go further. We follow uneasily. The message seems to be that you can joke about everything provided it is done from love.

Comedians is a thought provoking play given a marvellous production by a first rate cast. It can be seen at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday.

April 1995.



Christopher Frost said...

Not a play that I've been in, but sounds an interesting one to do. And doesn't the Playhouse look different, with no Sky Mirror. Just a little thing, the photo is of Richard Eyre and not Giles Croft

Phil Lowe said...

Yes Christopher the Playhouse does look very different. Thanks for the correction on the name. Don't know what I was thinking of there.:0)