Marty Feldman's style
of comedy - and indeed his story - is of a very specific time in the annals of
British entertainment. With elements of slapstick, surrealism, buffoonery and
double entendre - along with a wonky eye that did more to harm his ego than his
success or memorability - his work and his life aren't that dissimilar to his
peers that we call great comedy masters today: such as Peter Sellers, Spike
Milligan, Peter Cook and, of course, The Monty Python team. Even if you're less
aware of Feldman himself - playing a somewhat supporting role in history to
those other names as he chased a dream to the US with ultimately little success
(other than in
The set is as bare as the depth of the dialogue
With Terry Jones (Monty Python stalwart and sometime writer and performer for Feldman himself) directing this intimate two-hander in the Lounge at The Leicester Square Theatre, and written by Robert Ross (who has also written about the likes of Frankie Howerd, Sid James and Steptoe and Son) you may expect that the hands of these experts would have created a tragicomedy of an exemplary knowledgeable standard. So it comes as a depressing shock to find that Jeepers Creepers (the product of this meeting of minds) rarely makes you laugh and never makes you care enough about the characters to find the story tragic. The only tragedy here is that anyone thought that a script that seems to have been written with little knowledge of the form of the spoken word, and directed without light or shade, tone or pathos - or even an awareness of the basics of sight lines - should have a place in a theatre in London's West End.
The last few years of Feldman's life are told here through both monologue and the conversations he has with his wife Lauretta (though these are less conversational in tone, more a structure to allow them to explain moments in history), who was the 'Beauty' to his 'Beast' and stuck with him through his various addictions to women, to alcohol and to fabricating his own life story. The set is as bare as the depth of the dialogue - ultimately comprising just a bed that acts as different rooms over the years; the flat they moved to in the US (to find his fame) to the hotel he stays at in Mexico to shoot the last (abandoned) movie he was making before he died. In such a claustrophobic setting, we can understand why she struggles to accept his 'dalliances' and, if we didn't, it is spelled out for us by the speedy flipping of tone in their conversations that go from demonstrating their love ("Why do you stay? You make me laugh") to their frustrations ("Do you want me to do this now - all those late night phone calls and furtive tiptoes?!") in a blink of an eye and with just a look of dismay - no reality or believability in how the emotions go there and back. Poor Rebecca Vaughan (playing Lauretta) unsurprisingly seems to have run out of ways to look dismayed after the first 10 minutes or so - and without substance in the script to help her, you feel she has done her best, but the emotional cupboard is all too quickly bare.
It's unsurprising that Ross says that the initial scripts had the piece as a one man show - he added Lauretta's role later - as the scenes with the two of them seem to have been fitted in after notes were given. So can we expect more from Marty's monologues (at times directly involving the audience, at others, seemingly soul-searching to himself) to make us laugh or understand the pain of his demons further? Unfortunately, with weakly written gags which I understand may be actual jokes that Feldman made but that just don't work in either humour or delivery ("it's a fundamental issue - bless you" and "being insured in case I 'figure' myself - as opposed to 'disfigure' - keep up" stand out as punchlines that don't punch or get a response), we can't side with the 'clown' and so have little chance of caring enough to share the tears behind his mask. It makes it all the more uncomfortable when he is reading his side of his big interview with Merv Griffin - the first laughter I heard in the show was in the pre-recorded responses of the audience at that interview. Again, maybe that is partly due to the humour not travelling well through time but I suggest that is all the more reason to work harder on the delivery (both verbally and physically) to make us as the audience understand that and keep us on side.
Perhaps Jones was in fact too close to the man and lacked the time to distance himself enough to realise that this needed work. I wonder if, for him, his personal reminiscence and recognition of the story has somewhat overshadowed the need for the direction to ensure this is shared with a wider audience who weren't there and know less. It is difficult to see exactly what direction has inputted - the jokes rarely 'land', the delivery is largely lethargic and repetitive, even the staging and blocking for this (acceptedly challenging) small venue seem without thought; with only two people in front of me, I was unable to see a great deal of the action.
I'm sure that Ross' many books are well-researched, informative and possibly well-written (I haven't read them). I'm sure Jones cares deeply about the story of his friend Feldman and hence wanted to help bring it to stage (even using his name on the press is a draw for audiences). And I'm sure that David Boyle (as Feldman himself) does a fair impersonation of the man. But knowledge, caring and impersonations do not alone make for a well-written, directed or performed play that respects its audience. At one point, when talking about who would play him in a film of his life, Lauretta says to Marty, "You won't even get Mickey Mouse if you carry on like this". It's supposed to be an insult, but in this play of his life, they may have been better served if the Mouse had helped - at least it would have had a bit of Disney to brighten the dullness.