Man for all seasons - Phil Nichol at the Fringe
This article is from 2009.
Mark Fisher finds Phil Nichol mining two rich seams of comedy with his stand-up pals at this year’s Fringe
One is a Restoration farce typically performed by seasoned rep actors on grand proscenium-arch stages. The other is a scabrous heist comedy in which a middle-management executive is kidnapped in a Fife factory. Beyond their sense of humour, there is little to connect Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way.
Little until now, that is. Because the Comedians Theatre Company is presenting both plays on the Fringe, which means the irrepressible ringmaster Phil Nichol will be doing his customary dash across town in order to transform from Dunfermline hardman to 18th century fop six afternoons a week.
‘There’s an ongoing discussion about comedians taking over the Fringe, but this helps set it back the other way,’ says Nichol backstage at the Stand where he, Bruce Morton, Jim Muir (aka Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolf III) and Will Andrews have been rehearsing Gagarin Way. ‘Our idea is to do two shows each year: one larger scale, commercial and star-studded, the other that allows us to get really in depth into a character.’
Translated into 19 languages, Burke’s comedy has been eclipsed in success only by his world-conquering Black Watch. After the disappointing Whores earlier this year, the new production will be a welcome reminder of the playwright’s gift for a hilarious turn of phrase. Rooted in Burke’s native Fife and taking its name from a real street in the former mining village of Lumphinnans (‘Their credit crunch started in 1983,’ says the playwright), Gagarin Way is a darkly comic reflection on the impact of global economics on an area that has mutated from a hotbed of coal-mining communism to a dislocated landscape of call-centres and industrial parks.
‘What makes it funny is that these guys are deadly serious,’ says Nichol. ‘The play has been so successful because it makes people laugh and it makes people think. There’s a lovely, almost sentimental thing going with the old left, which is disappearing in this country. I play Eddie, who is one of these many guys who at any point could go, “Right, I’ve got nothing; there’s no future; there’s no way out of this.” His experiment is to see if he can change anything.’
Meanwhile, in an event that would be impossible anywhere but the Fringe, Nichol is joining a dozen top comics for a raucous staging of Sheridan’s 200-year-old send-up of London’s gossip-mongers. Lionel Blair leads the cast as Sir Peter Teazle who has to sort out fact from malicious fiction as two brothers try to win the hand of his ward, Maria.
‘Everyone’s got a perception about how you should play Restoration comedy, but I think any good performance starts with being free to show your personality to the audience,’ says director Cal McCrystal, famed for his work with Spymonkey, the Mighty Boosh and Cirque du Soleil. ‘These days the play is normally played by National Theatre-type actors, but actually in the original version Sheridan would have filled it with the wits of the day. The way we’re doing it is closer to that.’
Gagarin Way, The Stand, 558 7272, 9–30 Aug (not 17), 1pm, £7–£9 (£6–£8). Previews 7 & 8 Aug, £7 (£6); The School for Scandal, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 9–31 Aug (not 12, 19), 4pm, £13.50–£15 (£12–£12.50). Previews until 8 Aug, £5.