Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Sublime one-man show about a troubled comic actor. That could describe any number of good people no longer with us, brought down by one form of addiction or another. In this case the subject is Charles Hawtrey, a man best known for his roles in Carry On films but who’d rather that they never happened to him.
We’re in the cramped, crammed Baillie Room at Assembly Mound Place and there’s a disturbance offstage. Suddenly a small, camp man in round spectacles appears at the back of the room, clinging to a bottle of what purports to be lemonade, but perhaps holds a liquid of more addictive properties.
Bid welcome to Charles Hawtrey and the start of a one-man biographical stage play by Dave Ainsworth that premiered in 2004 and was revived to commemorate the centenary of Hawtrey’s birth in 2014. This version stars Jamie Rees, a man who not only looks and sounds like the eponymous hero but has faced (and conquered) his own battle with the bottle, a battle that Hawtrey never really attempted to fight, leading to his sad and, ultimately, terminal decline in the late 1980’s.
This hour long monologue is set for the most part in Hawtrey’s front room, or parlour as it would have been referred to in his heyday, which morphs seamlessly from that of London abode to that in Deal, where, in retirement (or was it self-imposed exile), he slowly drank and smoked himself to death.
Hawtrey is best remembered as a star of the Carry On series of films under the direction of Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers, the creative brains behind what was one of the most successful formulaic film series of all time. Hawtrey appeared in over twenty of these films but faced a constant battle with himself in terms of trying to remain sober enough to deliver his lines and with those in charge in terms of where he appeared on the billing and his fee. At £4,000 per film, this was generous for the time but a pittance in comparison to the profits raked in by the backers, including Thomas and Rogers themselves, something that rankled with Hawtrey for decades. And life on the Carry On set was anything but a bed of roses, with Hawtrey the cause of much angst given his obsession with billing, fees, status and the number of lines he had in each film.
But there was much more to Hawtrey than what he always referred to as the tawdry Carry On material. That might have paid a few bills but he never stopped referring to his learning under Will Hay, being directed by the iconic Hitchcock and having featured in that Ealing Studio classic Passport to Pimlico. It’s almost as if he was expecting this pedigree to generate leading roles in the classics of stage or screen. Sad, and rather delusional. He was capable, but no Gielgud.
Slowly, but surely, Rees draws out the inherent insecurity and delusions of a man whose only loyal friend lived in a bottle. Open about his homosexuality at a time when it was a criminal offence, Rees paints the picture of someone almost wanting to be caught, clamouring for attention with his increasingly eccentric and, at times, hysterical behaviour.
Rees pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of impersonating both the voice and manner of Hawtrey with aplomb, throwing in passable likenesses of Kenneth Williams and Sid James as a bonus. It’s a tour de force of a performance from an actor completely in touch with his subject, happy to throw in ad libs at various junctures throughout what is a tightly written, humorous yet at times poignant script.
But in the end, even his last remaining friend betrayed him and whilst one suspects that a deeper excavation into Hawtrey’s past might possibly reveal more sinister goings on, perhaps we should just remember him for what he was – a troubled, slightly delusional comedic actor.