Review | End of the Pier by Danny Robins

By Francis Beckett

Mike is a successful stand-up comic with his own television show.  His father Bobby used to be a successful stand-up too, until one dreadful day in Macclesfield he made an offensive joke about race (we never discover what it was). A journalist recorded it, and Bobby never worked again.  He was shunned, and Mike is too ashamed of him to invite him to his wedding, perhaps because Mike’s fiancée is a black television executive.

It looks at first sight like a cry against racism, with Bobby as an appalling stage racist and Michael’s fiancée Jenna as a fluent fighter against injustice, transcending victimhood.  But Danny Robbins is far too good a playwright to do anything so obvious.

Quite quickly we know that we are not going to like Jenna, who has all the brisk and brittle self-righteousness that the BBC seems to demand of its executives, conveyed in an assured performance from Tala Gouveia.

And we know that we are going to like Bobby, played sympathetically and with understated charm by the actor, comedian and television presenter Les Dennis. He tells a long and very funny story about a club he once performed in, and his son asks if it’s true. ‘Can’t remember, I’ve told it so many times’ comes the weary and transparently truthful answer.  He’s one of what Danny Robbins describes in a programme note as ‘the mainly male and working class stand-ups of the seventies and eighties’ who ‘are now largely expunged from history for their prejudiced stereotypes.’

So far from being a simple attack on racism, the play questions the central importance we have attached to questions of race. Have we rushed down the road of identity politics as a way of escaping the real chasm in our society, which is money, class and power?  And does not Jenna have more of any of these than Bobby, and even Mike?

‘We were the voice of the working class,’ says Bobby.  ‘We gave them what they wanted to hear. And on Saturday nights for fifteen years, it lifted them out of their lives – their sometimes hard, often unfair lives – and made them laugh.’ And his downfall, he thinks, was due to ‘class war.’ Racism isn’t really a disease of the poor; it’s ‘a rich man’s invention.’

Where Bobby grew up, he knew no black people.  There were lots of places like that while people of his (and my) generation grew up.  I remember, at the end of the sixties, a series of jokes doing the rounds on my university campus about a character called Rastus, who was lazy, dishonest, priapic, and startlingly well-endowed. That was what was funny.  

We are better than that now.  Or are we? Danny Robins seems to doubt it.  He wonders whether Bobby’s generation made racist jokes without meaning them, or knowing what they were talking about, and that something far worse is around now.  We realise that Bobby’s son Mike, in his heart, resents foreigners, especially black and brown ones, who get any of the goodies society has to offer. This is the new, carefully camouflaged racism. I had a quick word about that with Danny Robbins, after the show. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I avoided mentioning the B-word.’  The B-word is Brexit.

Mike can’t own up to anyone about his racism, or make racist jokes in his act, but he feels it deeply.  This pours out of him one night when he’s drunk, and is the mainspring of the plot. Mike is the hardest part to play, because we are never sure we know him.  We follow him through the twists and turns of his subconscious, and Blake Harrison makes each new persona interesting and credible – until the very end, when (for me, at any rate) his final act of self-immolation was a twist too far, and I couldn’t quite believe it.

That’s my only criticism – and a very mild one – of a well-crafted play, with a strong story to tell and an assured way of drip-feeding information to the audience at the playwright’s chosen pace.  It boasts four accomplished performances – the fourth, whom I have not yet mentioned, is Nitin Ganatra as Mohammed, and it would give away too much of the plot if I told you where he fits in. Director Hannah Price makes it all work, in front of a set which helps us believe without distracting our attention from the action.  

End of the Pier is the funniest, most moving, and most thought-provoking evening I have spent in a long time. See it if you can.

End of the Pier plays at the Park Theatre until 11 August.

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