Jamie Rees charms the audience in the moving, sympathetic and gently funny one-man show Oh Hello! which takes a peek behind the curtains to give a bitter-sweet balanced approach to the life of the Carry On star Charles Hawtrey.
The set for this very domestic drama is Hawtrey’s living room in his Deal home that became more an empty space for his loneliness than the intended escape from the showbiz world. The play reduced his world to an arm-chair, drinks trolley, broom and dustpan (but no brush) and a curtained window. Oh, and his new rug and cushion from smart London stores. Wearing his signature round-lens glasses with neatly parted hair, the diminutive figure tells us tales, fiddles with his crossword, sweeps the floor and runs a well-trodden path between the chair and drinks trolley.
The tragic state of the man is the show’s opener, drunkenly wandering into the theatre space looking around for some chap he has just met, swigging from the “lemonade” bottle, asking what show he has staggered into. The story telling includes his early career working with Will Hay, Groucho Marx and Alfred Hitchcock and the wonderful Ealing Comedies such as Passport to Pimlico but it is the Carry On series of films from 1958 (and life when he walked away from them) that form the heart of the work. In his later life our declining star (career, social life and health) recounts misdemeanors in his local hostelry, the odd visit from former colleagues and obvious but denied loneliness.
Rees manages that subtle balance between pathos and schmaltz with Dave Ainsworth’s script not over reliant on knowledge of the Carry On genre and the other larger than life characters that illuminate the narrative and provide the witty anecdotes. From what I remember of Hawtrey from his films, and I wonder how many audience members will be Carry On virgins (that one’s yet to be made), Rees has captured the mannerisms, voice and look of his subject. However, this is far from a Hawtrey impression. Rather it is the all too familiar story of the insecure comic, struggling with “real life”, escaping into alcohol, riven with ego that veers into excess and eccentricity and a hidden, darker side. Being gay in the not too distant bad old days peppers the narrative, with stories both amusing and bleak, and this steers well clear of making this more than an aspect, albeit rather a large one, of his life.
Those anecdotes range from the funny one-liner barbed comments we would expect from a Carry On film cast, especially Kenneth Williams, when the cameras stop rolling to darker revelations of the bitterness, envy, insecurity, ego clashes and resentment that marked life along with too much reliance on the bottle and his doting mother. They are all delivered impeccably with some pretty splendid vocal impersonations of Kenny (Williams), Larry (Olivier) and others who I am not familiar with so assume are similarly accurate.
Yes, the script and Rees’ performance show affection for the man but there are few punched pulled regarding his alcohol problems, the problems that in turn caused his performances and relationships, that unhealthy relationship with his mother and resentment of other cast members. He continually moans about low fees when the films were making a fortune and how he had to continually argue to get his name up the billing.
The show has already played to great acclaim at The Torch in Milford Haven, Jamie’s home base, whose artistic director Peter Doran deftly directs this crisp, concise and candid portrayal and it is now off to Edinburgh. I am told this is a little bit shorter than the show staged last year and I assumed it has been pruned for Edinburgh. I wonder if the original had more anecdotes of his work with Hattie Jacques, Joan Simms, Barbara Windsor and Sid James in the glory days of the 60s when Hawtrey would have been at his career peak and more examples of his posh-voiced comedy capers (on and off the screen) which provide sparkles of delight across the show. But perhaps that would make it more of a Carry On carry on and less about Hawtrey.
Catch it when it goes on the road which it surely will, after Edinburgh, and in the meantime I’m checking out a certain video website for some Hawtrey Carry On clips and searching out his back catalogue of earlier films.