MARTY FELDMAN: A GREAT COMIC’S ENDGAME
Next week at the Jermyn there opens a play which is a memorial to a late-life friendship with Lucille Ball; already on the far side of the Charing Cross Road we have this; Robert Ross’ 90-minute imagining of the last years of another even more troubled comic who struggled with success, its burden on a marriage, and a frivolous persona which tended to take over. Marty Feldman’s was a brilliant performer but also a key 1960’s comedy scriptwriter – for everyone from Archie Andrews the vent doll to Michael Bentine and the Bootsie and Snudge sitcom. He worked with, or knew everyone, in the last years of old-style Variety, even Max Miller; he drank with Dylan Thomas and compared “insanities” with Spike Milligan.
But then he was picked up to play Igor the hunchback in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and there came a lethal few years attempting to scale the heights of Hollywood and become an auteur-director himself . It ended in alcoholism and a lonely death far from home. Ross makes much of that dangerous distance; the Marty he portrays is always tugged by “an umbilical cord to the European tradition of comedy”, as his career falters and dies in that sunny, hotly commercial, perilously irony-free world way out West.
It is an imagining by Ross, though based on the researches in his biography; the first half consists of a late-night bedroom conversation with Marty’s wife Lauretta, and the second sees the relationship stressed, with him finally alone, drunk and depressed in New Mexico in 1982 during the filming of the excoriated film Yellowbeard he made with a few ex-Pythons (interestingly, it is a different ex-Python, Terry Jones, who directs Ross’ play.)
At first there is unease in watching this slow-motion crash: David Boyle plays Feldman, curly-haired and nimble, so well that you forget you are not looking at the pop-eyed reality, even when real Marty-jokes about his appearance crop up: like his claim that the studio insured him against falling over and getting “figured” rather than disfigured. Lauretta, supporter and patiently exasperated wife, is Rebecca Vaughan; she actually emerges faster than Boyle’s Marty does as a rounded and credible personality.
In fact Lauretta is in some ways the more interesting to watch: in the first half the rather pushy, determined backer who enjoys Beverly Hills and is keen to keep her wayward man’s erratic prattle from torpedoing his career on American talk shows, and therefore their new life. In this section there is a bit too much of his gagging and posing (indeed the play does not need its interval, and would tighten up beautifully at about 70 minutes).
Later, though, Vaughan shines as the wife’s brittle confidence dissolves into pain at his adulteries (“success went to my crotch” says Marty breezily, adding “…they all remind me of you, anyway” . We see a genuinely touching love and comradeship under strain. As he returns from another girlfriend with a gag, she grits “Not everything is a joke, Marty!’ to which, tellingly, he can only reply “It really is..”.
The endgame in a New Mexico hotel room is, of course, grim: but then, it was. We have been watching, in this close-up studio below Leicester Square, 100 minutes of comic, alcoholic self-destruction and ultimately self-pity, and that is wrenchingly sad. But Marty deserves remembering. The pity is that it is only his decline that makes drama.
box office 020 7734 2222 to 20 Feb