Tony Hancock remains one of the greats of British comedy; his radio show and subsequent television series set the benchmark for light entertainment throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His influence remains indelibly evident on many of today's great stand-ups. For half a century, the breathy delivery of the trademark opening line, 'Hhhhhhhhhancock's Half Hour', has brought a smile to fans around the world.
If you want to see for yourself, you can spend an hour with The Lad Himself at the Gilded Balloon right now. Yes, I know Hancock died in 1968, but watching Mark Brailsford's loving portrayal of him it’s as if he walks amongst us still. At first you see the striking impersonation, but within minutes you just accept that Brailsford is Hancock. Every mannerism, every gasp of exasperation is classic Hancock.
Set outside the gates of heaven, just after Hancock's untimely demise at his own hands, we meet him awaiting his final judgement. It turns out heaven is an NHS waiting room (a knowing reference to The Blood Donor). I had assumed this would be a one man show, so was pleasantly surprised to find a gaggle of supporting characters played by three additional performers. Mark Farrelly almost steals the show in every guise he assumes. A Fringe veteran, his knack for hammy (but not too hammy) characterisation sits perfectly against Brailsford's despairing Hancock. His portrayal of the everyman Burt is a clear homage to Kenneth Williams’ 'Snyde' character from the original Hancock's Half Hour radio shows. Burt’s childish optimism is the perfect foil to Hancock's cynicism. Just as in life, you can almost feel Hancock's irritation at the scene-stealing upstart (which ultimately led to Williams leaving the show to join the cast of Round the Horne). Williams outlived Hancock by twenty years, but the emblematic reuniting of the two in this play is a bittersweet touch, much appreciated by the audience.
Such was Hancock's dichotomy; he was the clown who desperately needed to be loved at the exclusion of all others. This is sensitively handled by the show as Hancock is forced to consider the way in which he had ultimately shut out all those who loved, supported, and helped him become famous. Ultimately, he is forced to consider whether he has any right to cry the tears of a clown, or whether he was the purveyor of his own downfall.
For those unfamiliar with the references, The Lad Himself could still be an enjoyable performance as there is plenty here to contextualise the dialogue. For fans and purists this is a beautiful and respectful homage to a much-missed comic genius.