Charles Hawtrey worked with Will Hay, you know. And Groucho Marx. And he was directed by Alfred Hitchock (albeit for just 15 seconds). These are career highlights for him. But of course the only thing he’s really remembered for us the Carry On films.
Oh Hello! does for Charles Hawtrey what David Benson’s Think No Evil of Us did for Kenneth Williams in that it brings to life a personality generally only known for their work, rather than as people. This is a revival of a play first performed by writer Dave Ainsworth many years ago, but which now has Jamie Rees playing the subject, and to greater success.
Rees has a striking resemblance to Hawtrey, and has his impersonation down to perfection. The look, the avian body language, the chuckle in his voice, the camp asides… it’s like Rees is channelling the spirit of Hawtrey for the duration of the piece. There’s a lot of hard work gone into studying his subject, and it pays off in spades. We’re also treated to snatches of Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Jim Dale and even Barbara Windsor.
After shambling in from the stalls with a carrier bag of “lemonade” (aka gin), Hawtrey takes the audience through various stages of his life, starting in 1961 following the filming of Carry On Regardless. Here begins a theme that runs as a backbone through the play – Hawtrey’s desire for top billing. He argued constantly with the producer Peter Rogers that he was the biggest star, with the greatest amount of experience (he’d worked with Will Hay, you know), but Rogers was having none of it. Hawtrey was never billed higher than third, below Sid James and Kenneth Williams, and this remained a bone of contention for years.
Hawtrey’s bitterness over this perceived lack of respect never leaves him, and indeed it ultimately eats him up. When asked to take part in a Christmas TV special which does not feature either James or Williams, Hawtrey (perhaps quite rightly) demands top billing, but is told he would have to come second to Hattie Jacques. His pride got the better of him, and that was that.
The first two-thirds of Oh Hello! are a riotously fun affair. Rees inherits Hawtrey’s perfect comic timing, and the laughs come thick and fast. But he does not play him as unfriendly or superior, as Williams was in real life. Hawtrey was actually great fun to be with, a rather endearing and sensitive soul, and it’s only the demon drink which turns him into the sad, embittered loner he becomes toward the end.
As Hawtrey’s joie de vivre ebbs away, so too does the play’s momentum. The pace slows, and the increased scene changes as time moves forward gives a choppy feeling (fade to black, Bach’s cello suite, lights up. Repeat). The need to hop from scene to scene, year to year is inevitable, however, as Hawtrey’s later life was one long drunken stupor populated with occasional “moments”, such as Williams’s sour visit to see him in his seaside home in Deal, the fire that broke out in his house in 1984, and of course, that final, tragic, almost noble end, when Hawtrey decided against having his legs amputated to save his life. He’d rather die with his boots on, he maintained. And he did.
Hawtrey was a tragic figure. He never found true love, and the death of his mother was a major turning point in his life. He doted on her, and her loss changed him. He was a lonely man, as was Williams, but the difference with Hawtrey was that he had no support network. What friends he had he pushed away, and he ended his years alone and unloved.
Oh Hello! is a tour de force of performance and writing. Jamie Rees is extraordinary as Charles Hawtrey (it is him, on the stage, there’s no mistake) and his story is tragic and inevitable. The play shows how easily what we now call “celebrity culture” can drop its subjects in favour of the next, brighter star, and how this removal of respect for their achievements can damage performers with so much to offer, but so much to lose.
At the end of the play, Hawtrey tells his doctor that he used to work with Will Hay, and what follows is like a punchline for a lifelong joke: “Who’s Will Hay?”. Thanks to Dave Ainsworth’s sensitive play, hopefully people will never forget who Charles Hawtrey is.