Being Tommy Cooper

A play about a famous and popular comedian such as Tommy Cooper is no small endeavour. Younger generations might not be so familiar with his work, but Tommy Cooper’s legacy is part of British comedy history. At the Old Red Lion.

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A play about a famous and popular comedian such as Tommy Cooper is no small endeavour. Younger generations might not be so familiar with his work, but Tommy Cooper’s legacy is part of British comedy history. The audience in the renowned pub venue Old Red Lion certainly showed much familiarity with Cooper’s sketches, and appeared pleased enough with Tommy Cooper’s interpretation by versatile and well-known TV actor Damian Williams.

This show, produced by Old Bomb Theatre in association with the Old Red Lion, is indeed a show of excellent, solid acting and good drama. Writer Tom Green wisely chooses to talk about events in Tommy Cooper’s life that focus on the human side of the famous comedian without totally resorting to easy clichés - although I cannot really say whether they're fact or fiction.

The piece has a fragmented narrative, combining flashbacks, monologues from each character and comedy sketches. It is set in Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the world, where Cooper is trying to make a break in the difficult American scene. Billy Glason (Gerard McDermott), salesman of encyclopaedias of jokes, approaches Cooper in the hotel room to make a sale. Miff Ferrie (James Benson), Cooper’s agent, joins the meeting in the hotel room in an attempt to sort out issues with Cooper’s run in Las Vegas, which has just been cancelled.

The play, atypically, does not open with Cooper straight away, but starts up with Billy the salesman and his monologue: he talks about gambling, observations of people in casinos etc. Miff, on the other side of the stage, talks on the phone; in the middle Cooper is preparing for his gig. This well orchestrated set-up continues throughout the show and creates the rhythm of the play: the asides interweave with Cooper's comedy sketches and break the conversation in the hotel room and the dialogues between characters. In the meantime, flashbacks to Cooper’s past and future complete the main narrative and subplots.

The complex structure and construction of the play shows both great directing (Cecily Boys) and writing bravura: it is a continuous flow of events and scenes that never confuses and always keeps you engaged. This is greatly helped by the acting calibre of the three actors, who make the roles their own with absolute perfection.   

James Benson is wonderful as the typical old-fashioned agent; Gerard McDermott succeeds with great flair and compassion to portray the disillusioned low-life salesman lost in the dark corridors of Las Vegas gambling dens. Of course, Williams is perfect in the comical sketches and charming in his interpretation of Cooper’s cynical, pompous and addictive personality.

This is West-End, National Theatre virtuosity. Towards the end, the play might lose a bit of focus and drive in all of its complexity, but it is otherwise very impressive in describing a nostalgic, decadent but compassionate side to the world of comedy. Even if you're not a Tommy Cooper fan or you know little about his work, this show is a must-see.

Las Vegas, 1954. In a small hotel room up-and-coming comic Tommy Cooper faces the prospect of his first big failure. With the show closing and a warring relationship with his manager, Miff Ferrie, Tommy lashes out. There's an offer on the table and a drink in his hand, but can he accept help from those around him or is he doomed to a lifetime of bitter resentment? Powerful, provocative, painfully funny and true, Green's astonishing play finds both the brilliance in Britain's most famous comic as well as the blackness. The man who could make you laugh just by walking on to stage comes vividly alive in this confrontational new play.

Old Red Lion Theatre

418 St. John Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC1V 4NJ

Performances at the following times:

19:30 (matinees at 15:30 on Saturdays and Sundays)