Thursday, August 02, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me" from 10.4.2008

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2008

The Curse of Comedy series came to an exciting climax yesterday with Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me. As Frankie himself might have said : Ooh no, Missus, nay and thrice nay, titter ye not ... 
 
Written by Peter Harness and directed by John Alexander, the play focussed mainly on the down-turn in Howerd’s career between the late-1950s to the point when he was taken up in the satire and TV boom of the early 1960s.

As we have come to expect in this series, we see a good deal of the darker side of the comedian. In Howerd’s case, we are treated to an often miserable and lugubrious star who is mistrustful of others, prone to depression, insecure and frequently selfish. He is regularly crippled with stage fright and hugely conscious of his appearance, resorting to what has been called a ludicrous toupee.

Most of all, Howerd was terrified of exposure as a homosexual at a time when such acts were illegal. Throughout his career, Howerd believed that being outed spelled ruin. As in so many cases before legalisation in 1967, we see him being blackmailed after at least one indiscretion.

Paradoxically and inconveniently, Howerd was energetically promiscuous and apt to proposition attractive younger men with a genuinely gay abandon, yet he was often racked with guilt and self-loathing about it. He showed this by crying after sex and stated that he wished he wasn’t gay.

As Howerd, David Walliams captures his facial and physical mannerisms and vocal inflections perfectly, particularly in performance later in his career at the Oxford Union. He also accurately portrays the time Howerd is off; his impression of Frankie when lonely, in pain and seeking reassurance is utterly convincing.

Alongside Walliams, we have Rafe Spall as his handsome young partner Dennis Heymer. His performance is also magnificent and he manages to capture another complex character. We see a down-to-earth and essentially humble person who is deeply devoted. He makes the difficult journey from waiter and barman to driver and eventually Howerd’s manager.

Heymer’s role required tact and self-control as he was frequently humiliated by virtually being airbrushed out of the picture in consequence of Howard’s overriding fear of being recognised as gay. Throughout many ups and downs, Dennis provides the emotional and practical support to keep his partner afloat. Despite his bravado, Howerd is shown to be fragile. Heymer understands his flaws and vanities, but remains steadfast.

We see the disturbing effect on Howerd of psychotherapy and drug therapy, including LSD. The viewer does not know if the treatment was aimed just at his depression or if it was an attempt to cure his homosexuality; but, whatever its intention, it appears too harsh and of dubious value.

As with Tony Hancock, we see a close relationship with his mother Edith, beautifully played by the ageless Dilys Laye. Edith is seen as warm and supportive, without being smothering. She is well-disposed towards Dennis and trusts him to take care of her son after her.

On her deathbed she speaks to Heymer, as Howerd sleeps in the background: he was always a good sleeper. In a simple statement, Edith sums up the essential chemistry of the relationship between the volatile Howerd and Heymer: There has to be one of you who makes things peaceful.

As one might expect, the death of his mother affected Howerd very deeply. The scene in which he re-visits her house and breaks down when looking through a box of old photographs is genuinely touching.

This trauma prompts Howerd to explain graphically to Dennis the sexual abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his drunken father. This disclosure reinforces the love of the compassionate Heymer and prompts him to stay with the needy Howerd, rather than move on.

One of the strengths of this story is its realism: it is dark and Howerd is riddled with uncertainties and personal and professional doubts. This gloom seems to go with the territory of brilliant comedy.

We see that, perhaps for different reasons, both Howerd and Heymer have liaisons with others. They argue and even come to blows at times but each understands the realities of gay life and ultimately appreciates the value of their relationship.

Unlike the earlier story of Hughie Green, this play gives a credible explanation as to why Howerd had his darker side. We may miss out on any glitzy appreciation of Howerd’s brilliant talent as a comedian, but instead are given a deeper insight into the development of his complex personality and the pressures this imposed upon his partner. For me this was the more interesting story.

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