Review: Open Theatre’s Being Tommy Cooper

With a live brass band, hosts decked out in fishnets and cocktail-topped cabaret tables, you could’ve been forgiven for mistaking Leeds for Las Vegas with Open Theatre’s last show of the semester, Being Tommy Cooper. Director Charlotte Ranson’s portrayal of a flawed yet adored comedy-magician was treated with sensitivity and humour, retracing the life of a man whose story is still little known to the public.

The audience were welcomed into the theatre by hosts Rebecca Gigliobianco and Milly Bailey, who led us into an immersive cabaret experience complete with a live brass band –  a brilliant way to get the audience into the swing of things. Particular commendations must go to producers Ella Kennedy and Phoebe Wilson, as the set was definitely a strong point, with the audience sat onstage in and amongst the action, which helped bring the story to life amongst slot machines, cocktail glasses and a bar.

I wish I had done some research on who Tommy Cooper was prior to the show, as admittedly I hadn’t heard of him beforehand. But, when I got home and had a little perusal, it was clear that Tom Pavey had absolutely nailed the prop magician’s characterisation, from the idiosyncratic coughs to the gait, accent and laugh. His descent from a happy-go-lucky, down-on-his-luck comic magician to an alcoholic wife-beater was uncomfortable yet gripping to watch, and Pavey’s versatile performance helped depict Tommy Cooper as both charming and cruel.

Joe Kent-Waters was a comedic delight as Billy Glason, a down-on-his-luck ex-Vaudevillian and joke seller, nailing the notoriously difficult Bostonian accent with ease and delivering emotionally gripping monologues about the trials and tribulations of the entertainment business. Manager Miff (James Adcock-Kersting) and Tommy’s partnership as the client-and-manager “locked in a hate-hate relationship” was extremely funny to watch, with Adcock-Kersting’s dour delivery being a well-contrasted delivery compared to Pavey’s hyperactive energy. Leah Hand, who played Tommy Cooper’s PA and mistress, Mary Kay, looked extremely modern with her silver hair and nose ring, and it might have been wise for her wear a wig so that is seemed more plausible the play was set in the 1950s. She was able to portray emotion in her monologues, though it might have been nice to see a little more variety in her characterisation.

Probably due to first night nerves, the energy felt a little low at times, and some of the back-and-forth in time wasn’t entirely clear. Something I found quite unprofessional was that the show’s production team were sat on stage taking notes on the actor’s performances – they were very visible so whenever they wrote notes, I was wondering what they were writing and why – it probably would have been better if they were sat less in view, as it was extremely distracting for audience members.

Overall, this unique staging of a truly idiosyncratic figure in British entertainment history was gripping played out, with slick lighting and sound operation helping guide the audience’s eye around the room, delivering a touching tribute to a complex figure.

Steph Green

Image courtesy of the Daily Express