Most comedy depends on the impact of the surprise – Just Like That relies entirely on the familiar. Those who enjoyed this faithful Tommy Cooper tribute the most were also those who couldn’t help but join in with the time-weathered punchlines.
John Hewer captures the be-fezzed comic icon’s childish spirit. The throaty rasp, the haughty laughs at his own silliness, or the lumbering, ursine clumsiness that poleaxe any attempts at deft, stylish conjuring tricks.
That it is an impersonation necessarily puts some distance between the performer and the audience. We know that every mimicked guffaw has been practised in a way we are less likely to consider when watching a stand-up performing their own material. But if there’s one thing that’s certain about Cooper’s relentless parade of cheesy puns and contrived prop gags, it’s that they can wear down any resistance. Like his natural heir, Tim Vine, persistence and a chipper manner becomes infectious.
Hewer, of course, starts from a position of strength, too. No one is going to come to Just Like That if they are in any way uncertain about being a Tommy Cooper fan. His task, then, is to reawaken those memories… with the added difficulty of rose-tinted hindsight having filtered out any dud routines (and they do exist). This he does with an innocent charm that matches the original as closely as he follows Cooper’s cadences and script. Occasionally he even achieves what Cooper could famously do, and get a laugh without saying a thing; anticipation is enough.
There is little point in describing his family-friendly material: the corny wordplay or the displays of conjuring that teeter on the precipice of disaster until he pulls off an unexpected display of skill, or which, against the odds, actually work until he cloddishly reveals the mechanisms behind them. Needless to say, Hewer has been keeping the country’s prop-makers busy with visual gags – notably an end-of-the-pier rendition of Bob Dylan’s Blowing In The Wind that closes the first half.
This production, which has the blessing of the Cooper estate, does not attempt to consider anything about the comedian’s life, as recent plays and TV biopics have done, but simply to recreate the simple pleasures of his performance. Times have moved on, of course, and no one can ever recreate the peculiar alchemy that made Cooper a star. But if you fancy a trip down memory lane, then it’s money, ticket, ticket, money…. Just like that.