Watching Funny Faces at Artrix in Bromsgrove last night the thought struck me, “Why did so many comic actors of my childhood become dependent on alcohol?”
The answer came to me when Sid James, played with great sympathy by Steve Dimmer, explained that being funny is not the same as being happy. This reminded me of something Joan Sims, portrayed in a sensitive and convincing performance by Caroline Nash, said in the first of the evening’s two plays: “…it’s a good job I’m a happy person…” This remark, spoken with a throwaway wistfulness that revealed that she was not, underneath it all, a happy person, sums up the sad lives of almost all of the stars mentioned over the course of the evening.
None of them were happy: Tony Hancock – paralytic on a London street and almost knocked over by Sid James’ taxi; Charles Hawtrey – so drunk on set he could hardly stand; Hattie Jacques – unable to control her weight and Kenneth Williams – so repressed he made his guests use a public toilet rather than the one in his flat. All spoken of with great affection by Sims and James, and all unhappy but funny.
Funny Faces is an evening of two one-act plays – ‘SIMply Joan’ and ‘Wot Sid Did’ - both one-handers, minimally staged and reliant on two strong actors who can each hold their audience for the best part of an hour. Nash and Dimmer achieve this with ease: their performances are charismatic and convincing, with both actors moving from the light of hilarious anecdotes to the shade of confronting their own weaknesses.
As Joan Sims ‘the Queen of the Carry Ons’, Caroline Nash is hugely sympathetic. Using the conceit of taking a break from the last night wrap party, she unfolds a biography that took her from RADA to BBC costume drama ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. “I’m happy in the spotlight” she says, and certainly the packed audience in the Artrix Studio applauded most appreciatively.
Steve Dimmer shows Sid James in the hour before his final, fatal heart attack in Sunderland in April 1976. Before he even spoke we saw, through subtle make-up and well-sustained acting the ravages that booze had wrought on James – indeed he gets through the best part of half a bottle of Scotch during the play.
His is a less understated play than ‘SIMply Joan’, but Dimmer manages to show the pain beneath the jokey, matey face that James presented to the world. Of course, it is Sid’s love for Barbara Windsor that reveals the sensitive, lonely man he was. Although he appears to take nothing seriously, especially his relationships with women, he always returns to ‘Babs’, despite some pretty severe ‘warnings’ from Windsor’s gangster husband.
For many in the audience this was not the evening they had expected – no coarse jokes, only one trademark chuckle. Instead it was a thoughtful and complex explanation of how two people, both in their way national institutions, were, underneath it all, lonely and sad. Yes, there are laughs, but there are many poignant moments, none more so that when Joan Sims explains why she could not attend her close friend Hattie Jacques’ funeral.
Funny Faces is a satisfying show featuring two outstanding performances: very definitely worth seeing if you get the chance.
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