A faithful tribute to a truly British comedy icon, Clive Mantle has both the bearing and the timing to bring Tommy Cooper back to life, though the script tends to avoid any meaningful insight into its subject. Not that the audience noticed, being too busy laughing.
Edinburgh Fringe has long been a festival of contradictions:children’s shows vie with musicals about fascist dictators, new experiments jostle with established favourites, innovation is nominally celebrated but there is a distinct pecking order of performers and venues. Cerebral and slapstick, hifalutin’ and vulgar: all human taste, it would appear, is here.
The one consistent quality, however, is that there has been a degree of uniqueness: something about the act that made it quintessentially “fringe”. Recent years, however, have seen the intrusion of something altogether different: the zombie show.
The re-animation of an act now deceased for the entertainment of those old enough to remember but perhaps too young to have seen the performer anywhere other than TV. These can range from almost spiritualist exercises in channelling the spirit of the act, used as a counterpoint to the trends of today, to a shallow exercise in impersonation, where all the tics and mannerisms are in place but without any sense of what initially put them there.
Sadly, Clive Mantle (he of Casualty and Robin of Sherwood) comes closer to the latter than the former. Despite his size – and Mantle certainly seems to stretch the full 6’4” of Tommy Cooper – and evident comic timing, he is not a man who can make the audience laugh just by walking on stage – as Cooper could. Indeed, it takes about half an hour to get into his stride. Not that he is helped by JohnFisher’s script, which appears to want to go into interesting places in its initial backstage scene with its hints at Cooper’s drinking and infidelities but instead decides to surrender all attempts at narrative in favour of a straightforward re-creation of Cooper’s act.
That said, it is here that Mantle, possibly freed from the burdens of exposition, takes flight. Although never having fun with Cooper himself, his delivery and mannerisms, from the faint West Country burr to the mock heart-attack chest clutch, are unfailing and beautifully timed. He can deliver a gag, too. Ably assisted by Carla Mendonca, who fulfils the roles of gopher – possibly Mary Fieldhouse, Cooper’s stage manager and long-time mistress – glamorous assistant and guardian angel, Mantle seems to revel in the mis-firing tricks and stupid jokes that were Cooper’s stock in trade. Certainly, it’s a joy that is shared by his audience, with grown men and women clutching at their sides and puce with laughter, worn down by the sheer volume of gags thrown at them over the course of the show’s hour and a half. It’s a show that suits the traditional curtain and tabs set-up of the Assembly Rooms’ Rainy Hall, never more so than when Mantle is reproducing Tommy’s final routine, albeit ending with a throwaway line and not Cooper’s own tragic demise, live on Sunday night television.
Between Mantle, magic consultant Geoffrey Durham and director Patrick Ryecart, the audience comes away with a sense of having seen a classic Tommy Cooper act. Indeed, the show is so devoted to entertaining the public that even after we have a scene with Cooper in Heaven, he comes back for an earth-bound encore. There is nothing wrong with entertainment, but Tommy Cooper – like Bill Hicks – is dead. Whereas “Bill Hicks: Slight Return” acknowledged its own artifice and questioned why audiences were queuing up to see someone impersonate a dead comedian, “Jus’ Like that” betrays none of that self-awareness. Mantle and team have achieved a kind of magic with their resurrectionist act, but – in the end – it’s just a trick.