At the height of his fame, as part of a 1970s double act called Chalk and Cheese, Bobby (Les Dennis) used to have viewers of 20 million. He used to be a household name. His son Michael (Blake Harrison) is also a famous comedian, though his material consists mostly of bland, observational jokes about duvet covers.
Danny Robins’ play intelligently explores the different roles comedy can play in society: how it can be both a release valve and a weapon, the recourse of the bully.
End of the Pier is more than just a melancholy ode to old-school entertainers. Bobby and his partner used to chuck around racist epithets while claiming to be the voice of the working man. Their comedy was far from victim-less. It was toxic, ugly stuff.
But the tables are turned after Michael assaults Mohammed (Nitin Ganatra), a Bangladeshi man he encounters while drunk, in an incident that has the potential to end Michael’s career.
Mohammed refuses to play the victim, however – and he’s determined to use comedy to give himself a voice.
There’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff in Robins’ play, but it’s slow to take off. Dennis is almost too amiable as Bobby, though he’s increasingly appalled by the glimpses of hate he sees in his son. Harrison exudes desperation and frustration as Michael, railing against the things he’s not “allowed” to say; Tala Gouveia brings warmth and nuance to the potentially thin role of Michael’s BBC comedy commissioner girlfriend.
At first, Hannah Price’s production meanders – some of the timing feels off, not all of the jokes land – but everything gets tighter and sharper in the second half as the stakes are raised and Ganatra delivers a play-stealing stand-up routine. Not everything in the play convinces, but when it hits its stride, it’s pretty impressive – a smart and discomfiting comedy about comedy.