Canned Laughter | Rating: **** | Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy
There’s Allan Stewart, the star, the handsome one, possessed of a terrific range of traditional showbiz skills. There’s Andy Gray, one of nature’s great, lugubrious comic actors, at once daft and very wise, with plenty of tragedy behind the comedy.
Then there’s Grant Stott, the big lad, the helpless foil to the antics of the other two. And as a combination, it works brilliantly; which is just as well, since in this new touring play, written by Ed Curtis with Allan Stewart, they and their female co-star Gabriel Quigley take on the notoriously difficult task of creating drama out of the truth that the offstage lives of funny men are often not funny at all.
So the story - told in flashback from Alec’s present-day dressing-room - begins in the 1970’s, when the boys, Alec, Gus and Rory, have been chivvied by Rory’s budding agent, sister Maggie, into forming a comedy trio called Wee Three. The comedy is traditional stuff delivered in inspired style, and the audience laughs along contentedly; but the scene begins to darken when the three win their big chance of nationwide fame, and Rory suddenly finds himself excluded from their future plans.
From this point on - around the halfway mark, in a two-hour show - there’s a dark backbeat to the comedy, as Alec and Gus win fame and fortune, but are increasingly divided by Gus’s guilt over Rory’s rapid decline into alcoholism, captured in two brave and painful scenes which leave the audience uncertain how to react.
Yet if the second half of the show can’t maintain the comic energy and dramatic drive of the first, there’s no doubt that Stewart and Gray - with Stott as Rory’s benign ghost, haunting the dressing-room - have the skills to sustain the unfolding story of how Gus, long since retired from the stage, has written a script about what happened to Wee Three. And given a fine set by Francis O’Connor that morphs effortlessly from dressing room to stage, and strong support from Gabe Quigley’s Maggie, Edinburgh’s panto stars make an enjoyable and thoughtful show out of a script that can’t match the greatest studies of the price of comedy - like Tom McGrath’s Laurel & Hardy - but that pursues the same themes with humanity and feeling, and a touch of inimitable showbiz flair.
• Theatre Royal, Glasgow, tonight until Saturday; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 24-26 March; and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 29 March-2 April.