Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Hancock and Joan" from 31.3.2008
As with the opener, The Curse of Steptoe, the writing, production values and performances were impeccable and combined to move, appal and intrigue. Written by Richard Cottan, Hancock and Joan is a powerful and authentic study of passionate love, guilt and despair; it is brilliantly and truthfully dark.
At the core of the play is the genius of Tony Hancock. He is driven by powerful demons. We know that in his work Hancock was wildly successful and almost a national institution. However, he never rested on his laurels and, perhaps unwisely, was always dissatisfied and seeking ways to improve his performance, scripts and casting. This compulsion led him to dispense with colleagues such as Sid James and Kenneth Williams and disastrously with his gifted writers, Galton and Simpson, freeing them up to leave him behind and move on to Steptoe and Son.
At this point in his life Hancock’s career is on the downturn. His recent shows on ATV had not matched his previous successes and his films had been poorly reviewed in this country and made negligible impact overseas.
This deterioration professionally was matched by a chaotic private life. He had left his first wife Cicely and married his agent Freddie Ross, but parted from her as his alcoholism and violent and depressive interludes increased.
At this low ebb Hancock met Joan. Although they both resist at first, their mutual attraction is immediate and intense. They are both constrained by love and respect for the trusting and amiable John Le Mesurier (Alex Jennings) but ultimately are both powerless to resist a mutual obsessive passion.
The attraction between the two is passionately physical. They also seem to satisfy other needs. As well as being sexual, Joan is caring, compassionate and tolerant. In some ways she is like a mother.
When sober, Hancock is brilliant, lovable and vulnerable. He is also freer and more impulsive than the restrained and fastidious John, which may also be part of his attraction to Joan. One could never imagine Hancock telling Joan I love you more than somewhat.
From the outset we see that both Hancock and Joan love John and regret the pain their liaison causes him; despite their genuine shared guilt, they really cannot help themselves.
Another link between the two lovers is humour. They lose themselves in fits of giggles at the drop of a hat, as when Hancock’s mother catches them in flagrante delicto and he calls out “I’m coming mother.”
Similarly, the extended comic scene with the Pythonesque landlady in Ramsgate is hilarious from the moment the bell push drops off until she sniffily describes in detail how she prefers gentlemen to use the lavatory.
When first together, Hancock and Joan are blissfully happy. They laugh all the time and Hancock enjoys the warmth of acceptance within Joan’s family and playing with her son.
Sadly, before long, professional pressures mount. We see nerves before his Festival Hall performance send him rushing to the bathroom, but Joan is able to face it all and comfort him - like a mother.
This stress eventually pushes Hancock to seek the solace of alcohol and we realise how extreme his alcoholism is. Hancock gulps down brandy and becomes depressed and ultimately violent and abusive.
In this state he wrecks a family supper, calling Joan’s mother a four letter Anglo Saxon expletive – and a provincial Mancunian one at that - for which she never, ever forgave him. He later careered around his new home in Kent brandishing a coffee table and applied the same sobriquet to his adopted home county.
In this period Hancock is admitted to clinics to dry out. One doctor explains the grim truths of his condition to Joan, including that Hancock’s first wife loyally tried to keep him company in his drinking and paid for this by herself becoming a hopeless alcoholic.
This is echoed by a shocking scene in which Joan tries to persuade Tony to stop by drinking glass after glass full of brandy before collapsing in tears, taking an overdose and herself ending up in hospital. Hancock’s addiction is so severe that he carries on regardless and only appears mortified when he comes round.
Two figures seem to play a significant part in making Hancock what he has become. To Joan’s disgust his long-standing chauffeur aids and abets his quest for drink and is portrayed as seeming jealously to resent Joan’s intrusion into Hancock’s life.
Hancock’s mother Lil is also a huge influence. Hancock’s bashful, pained and almost quizzical smile to Joan at times of stress is very much that of a little boy wistfully seeking comfort or reassurance from his mother. He demonstrates this in the joke about memories of the mother pointing out the choo-choo, puff-puff to her son on a day out long ago. The trouble was he was 32. Hancock was needy and Joan was in many ways a mother-substitute.
The horror of life with advanced alcoholism is graphically presented. Only a person who has been obliged to live with someone with this condition can really appreciate its corrosive daily impact. On days when drink is not in control, sheer relief heightens the pleasures of normal life but the underlying anxiety about when the next cruel incident will take place is always there. In some ways this nervous anticipation of suffering to come during the good sober days is as cruel as the actual trauma endured on the bad drunk days; the stress involved is almost unimaginable.
After herself being hospitalized, Joan gives up on the fight for a while and returns to the forgiving John. She cannot, however, let go entirely and still loves Tony. Following his return from Australia, Joan and Tony meet clandestinely for a time. After months of turmoil, she eventually agrees that if he makes a go of his next trip for a series in Australia and keeps off the booze for a year, she would leave John and marry him.
In Australia we see the pressure again mount on Hancock. He copes with the work on his new TV show, but is undermined by news of adverse press coverage of the affair back in the UK. His vital life-line of letters form Joan is cut – either by Joan ceasing to write or a postal strike or both - and the fragile Tony cannot cope.
We see Joan try unsuccessfully to speak to him on the telephone. Prompted by a desperate Tony, his mother Lil tries to 'phone Joan at her parent’s house, but is dismissed by her mother who is still bitter about his drunken insults to her.
Following this, alone half a world away in his lower floor apartment in the rented house shared with his director Eddie Joffe, Tony Hancock is drunk and hallucinating, depressed over professional and personal failure. He takes an overdose and dies.
The death scene in the lonely bedroom is bleak, but we are left with one ray of hope. As he commits suicide, Hancock sees his comic self in his trademark astrakhan coat and Homburg. They shyly hug each other, perhaps for the first time; it is an embrace seemingly signifying acceptance, understanding and – hopefully - peace.
In the penultimate scene Joan visits Lil, whilst John waits outside. Devastated, Joan feels if she had gone to Australia, Tony would still be alive.
In an effort to make her feel better, Lil confides that Tony left two notes. The second, barely legible, was to Lil. After apologising for causing her yet more grief, Tony wanted a message passed on to her: "he now knew that the soul was everlasting and that Lil would understand. "
Lil believed Tony recognised in the end that "his soul was his gift and that he would never die." Lil had tried to make him understand this: "but he he could never see it; all he could see was an empty hole, that he tried to fill with drink."
Racked with guilt, Joan admitted that she had wished it was John that had gone and not Tony. Lil reminded her : "John is a good man. Don't hurt him any more. Tony never wanted that; he loved John. Get on with your life."
In the closing flashback, Hancock told an interviewer: "I don't regret it, but I wouldn't want to go through it again. I've tried to do the very best that I can. There's nothing worse than to come off and disappoint them. But sometimes, maybe the the audience asks a little too much. You just try to give as much as possible."
This brings to mind the perceptive tribute to Tony Hancock, the performer, by the late Sir Harry Secombe: "The demands of his profession shaped him, destroyed him and eventually killed him. If anyone paid dearly for laughs it was the lad himself. May he lie sweetly at rest".
Over the final credits Ella Fitzgerald sang the Rogers and Hart classic of love that just won't go away, Where or When. It's air of wistful romance suited the star-crossed love story of Tony and Joan and was fully in keeping with Joan's absorbing book on which the play was largely based, Lady Don't Fall Backwards.
Given that the real climax of the play was Hancock's confrontation and embrace with himself as the artist in trade-mark Homburg and astrakhan at the moment of his death, I wondered whether the tribute of another Brummie, Harvey Andrews from his song Mr Homburg Hat might have been even more apt:
And when we laughed, you cried
And when we sat in silence,
You tried all you knew
But when we came to say
That we'd really like to see you play
Because we love you
We love you
You only turned and took the bottle down
It served to help you through another town
And the papers said
That all the laughs were dead
Another broken clown.
Now there's no more Homburg hat and astrakhan
Just empty places on the seating plan
But now they flock to say
The greatest of his day
That funny man -
How sad he ran.