“So I went to the doctor; and he said I’m sorry Mr Cooper but you’ve got a serious illness; I said I want a second opinion; he said alright you’re ugly as well….” pure genius – a classic gag based on simple wordplay. Of course, different things make us laugh but some performers have universal appeal; the art of Tommy Cooper was never to offend or shock, but more to gently lean on our funny bone. He never touched race, religion, sex or politics; the joke was always on Tommy or the man/ woman who went to the doctor or walked into a pub. Therein lies the skill: comedy without barriers or labels. His act was simple but doesn’t sound remotely funny when you write it down; incompetent magician gets the trick wrong and tells a joke to cover it up. However, in the hands of Mr C it becomes a tour de force, a reminder of a more decent, straightforward era.
John Hewer is excellent in the title role, and whilst we could all do a Tommy Cooper impression, he’s picked up the nuances both obvious and subtle; the laugh; gauche, gawky strides across the stage, utter confusion when something goes wrong; maniacal delight when something goes right. In real life, Tommy was a respected member of the Magic Circle; and this is where John Hewer’s reading goes beyond parody, in order to get something so spectacularly wrong, you’ve first got to know how to get it right. He projects this essential truth to great effect; ‘yes, I’m playing the fool but I know exactly what I’m doing.’ It’s not about getting a trick wrong, anyone can do that; it’s about anticipation, using sleight of hand to cover the clanger waiting to happen. Similarly, gags are delivered at a furious pace and you’ve probably heard them all before, but like any old gag, if the timing and delivery is right it can still be funny.
There’s something comforting in nostalgia and all the usual routines are present and correct. Christopher Peters provided a useful foil for John Hewer, and contributed two sharp songs on the piano that were reminiscent of Noel Coward in his prime. This probably won’t mean a thing to anyone under the age of thirty and betrays the limited appeal of this show. Tommy Cooper was a man of his time, a creation from the dying days of old style music hall. Growing up in the Seventies, my memories of Tommy Cooper are restricted to TV when light entertainment was king and Morecambe & Wise, the Two Ronnies and Benny Hill fought for our affections. Tommy Cooper was truly a legend, but feel his catchment area will only ever be the over 40s, in other words, those old enough to remember him as an active performer. Subsequent generations may find this type of humour corny, fed as we are on a diet of explicit, foul mouthed stand up comedy; but funny is funny; the same way Tommy Cooper was a very funny man.