TITTER YE NOT: IT WAS TOUGH
An element of pilgrimage here: new-fledged theatre, new play, worth the long masked train to London and then a bus’s wild wanderings south of the river until I gave up and got a cab (having said that, if you live in Camberwell or thereabouts, the GG is both convenient and civilised: a grand big pub with a skylight and a mural of the Grand Canal).
But I wanted to see Simon Cartwright channelling another dead comic of the mid-20th century,because in Edinburgh a while back he was mesmerisingly convincing and slightly horrible as Bob Monkhouse (https://theatrecat.com/2015/08/16/the-man-called-monkhouse-assembly-hall-edinburgh/). Here he is in Mark Farrelly’s new two- hander about another legend, Frankie Howerd. Who fascinated me in my late 50’s childhood – his was a fifty year career – because his looks, which he described as “face like a camel on remand” were worryingly like those of my Granny in old age. Especially when going “oooh!” In a knowingly filthy way. It was also of interest because I know two people who worked with him and didn’t like him one bit: tricky, moody, sexually predatory, they said.
But he had an excuse.. It was no picnic to be gay in the in the unforgivingly homophobic 1950s and early 60’s, when audiences adored the liberation of camp but abhorred the reality of same-sex love. And, as in Howerd’s case, drove that abhorrence deep into the private identity of some victims. He hated it, despised himself, and never over their forty-year partnership acknowledged Dennis Heymer as his partner, shrugging him off publicly as “oh, no-one” or at best a factotum. Their tale has been told before with David Walliams on screen, and in the tabloids when the extraordinary tale emerged of the aged Heymer, long after the comic’s death and the legalization of gay marriage, “marrying” their adopted son to regularize inheritance.
But in Farrelly’s play, more interestingly, the focus is on Dennis himself, played by the author, at first seen aged and bitter then through his lover’s ghost appearance re-living the stages of their partnership from the moment when as a young sommellier at the Dorchester he was fascinated by the clumsy, odd-looking, uneasy star (then waiting for Gielgud to discuss a Charley’s Aunt role!), and effectively propositioned him.
And so their story goes on, from the comic’s glory days to the slump when he entertained troops in sweaty Borneo “They told me Bournemouth!” and the revival when Peter Cook picked him up for the satirical Establishment Club. He was a surprising hit there, apolitical but subversive, bringing the earthiness of old Variety to the world of clever-angry young men of the Footlights generation.
The 80-minute show breaks the fourth wall constantly to appeal to us: from Dennis first asking us , as a tour party of the couple’s house, to witness his life and how he was treated; then from Frankie himself, appearing nicely through a portrait on the wall to create the happy, uneasy rapport of an old-stage stalwart with a lot of Ooh-missus, titter-ye-not, and cheeky taunts. Cartwright has the eyebrow-work, the pout, the hand-flap and the ungainly charm, all bang to rights. It makes all the more dramatic the scenes where he is shy, unpleasant, cold, screaming at his therapist (Dennis taking the part) or collapsing into drug-fuelled hysteria.
The lighting design is particularly fine by the way – Mike Robertson – and credit to Tom Lishman for the spot-on sound cues for invisible lighters and drinks. It feels classy. I could have done with a little more illustration of just why being gay before 1967 meant – as the men say “hiding in plain fright” – because a young audience may not quite grasp this otherwise. But as a tribute to the many invisible lovers of famous men, it is painfully moving. Farrelly’s exposition of that pain, as Dennis, wins it the fourth mouse.
box office goldengoosetheatre.co.uk to 31st.