Big Basket Productions bring The Cheeky Chappie, a biography of Max Miller successfully to the Marlborough stage, with a first-class performance from Jamie Kenna.
Max Miller was one of Britain's top comedians in the thirties and forties, until his star waned in the fifties. The Cheekie Chappy was cheeky from top to toe - his material, his dress and his on-stage manner. Brash, bold and near-the-knuckle, his back pocket "blue-book" of risky material ensured his controversy as a comedian alongside his much loved "here's one", endless string of one-liners, catch phrases and jokes that turned him into the darling of the variety halls. Miller lived and breathed his craft, yet behind the curtain, there was a troubled marriage, self-doubt and inner turmoil - the signature of so many comedians who are loved in front of the curtain.
Big Basket Productions have brought Dave Simpson's strong script successfully to the Marlborough stage. Well chosen and delivered songs by a more than capable chorus pepper this biography with irony and also immerse us in the milieu. We are taken through the main chapter headings of Miller's life - his early struggles to break into "his way of doing things", his change of name, marriage troubles, and the mistress who became the mainstay of his offstage life, the woman who made the comedian laugh.
Laura Martin-Simpson plays Kathleen, his wife, with poise and, as this "ten a penny" singer, she gives us moments of tragic stillness as she fades into shadow even as he steps into limelight. Sarah Moyle's Ann Graham is captivating and she walks into Miller's life on Brighton beach with a wonderfully underplayed charisma.Here less is more and she is all the more compelling and convincing for it.
This is a huge strength of the production. There is a triangular symmetry to the way Simpson's script places the two women in Miller's life. The staging of it rises to meet the skill of the writing. Miller stands, physically in the middle of two very different women, two aspects of his own aching need, away from the lights of the variety stage and endlessly laughing audiences. There is the mother and there is the lover. But never is there fully the wife. This is staged simply and often beautifully on the small Marlbrough stage. There's a real sense of duality in the dynamic between Ann and Kathleen. Neither upstages, deliberately or accidentally - the balance is perfect. Max stands in the middle, between want and need, between past and future, between mother-wife and mistress. What a powerfully staged contrast between the lights-blazing, audience controlling Miller on stage, and the vulnerable, fearful Miller standing in real life between two women who both love him, and both of whom he desperately needs for different reasons!
Placement is everything here and Andrew Lynford, the director, has got this just right. He creates stillness, tenderness, sadness, laughter and warmth in equal measure. If I had one criticism it is that sometimes characters border on caricature alongside characters who are played more naturalistically. Also Max, for example, is played with a pitch-perfect accent. One or two others allow a more contemporary voice to leak through. A little more consistency here would immerse us even further in the historical mood and feel.
That said, in the centre stands Miller himself; Jame Kenna brings the Cheeky Chappie to convincing life from the very first moment. He inhabits his character physically - vocally and energetically and we are there, with Max, we are his audience, and even in a small venue, even with the passing of decades, his gags raise more than a giggle amongst the fifty or so in the full house of this small theatre. Kenna doesn't get a note wrong, delivering lines at the break-neck pace and flow needed for us to believe this really is Max Miller. Costume is perfect, staging is simple, allowing Max to step forward into the light and transport us to where we need to be.
The songs which mark the change in chapters are evocative and ironic, though sometimes they feel a bit obvious as choices and one or two more subtle selections might have given the different phases of the story even more ironic punch. The stagecraft is sometimes a little uneven as well, and the arrival at the waning-star Max felt a little sudden and was less sharp and well realised. It feels that another week of rehearsal will really sharpen this production for the outstanding show it is destined to be. Yet, at the centre of it all is a five-star performance by Kenna himself with a highly skilled supporting cast. Kenna's attention to detail is what gives this stellar quality, and his fullbodied commitment to the "routines" is matched by his ability to be still, intense and to range the all too human emotions in the off-stage scenes.
I'd give my last farthing to see this again. This is a very fine production that has made members of the Max Miller Appreciation Society proud. It is staged lovingly and respectfully with a script that shows the light and dark side of this comedy legend. It's highly recommended and will get even better as its run progresses. You'd be a fool to miss it.
Reviewed by Paul Levy 29th April 2012
Please note: this show is billed as suitable for all the family in the Fringe Programme. I'd suggest it is suitable for age 12 and over.