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Canned Laughter - Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott

In a Leith warehouse on a cold Wednesday afternoon, something funny is going on. Just how funny remains to be seen, because, as pantomime favourites Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott have long known, comedy is a very serious business indeed, and when comedy partners fall out, it really is no laughing matter.

You can see this when all three are on their feet for rehearsals of Canned Laughter, a brand new play co-written by Ed Curtis with Stewart about Alec (Stewart), Gus (Gray) and Rory (Stott), an imaginary 1970s comedy troupe on the verge of the big time.

Such showbiz mythology is familiar territory for Curtis, who had directed Stewart in the title role of Al Jolson in Jolson and Me. Curtis later directed Alan McHugh and Elaine C Smith's Susan Boyle based musical, I Dreamed Dream, in which Gray appeared. Prior to both shows, in 2007 Curtis wrote and directed Never Forget, the Take That jukebox musical which focused on a tribute band trying to get their break.

With Canned Laughter, Curtis initially thought about doing something about a band getting back together. Gray and Stott's inability to play any musical instruments put a stop to that.

“I wanted to do something with a nostalgic glow around it,” Curtis says, sitting beside Stewart on a sofa in the Green Room “but there was something that wasn't quite clicking, and it felt like a forced concept.”

The idea of making a show about a comic trio was a gift.

“It meant that I could still talk about the things that interest me from a writing point of view, like memory, ambition in art and what it takes to maintain friendships through that personal ambition. That was all still open to me, but I also had this gift of three guys who were used to working together in real life, and who have this shorthand between them that can sometimes just be a look.

“From that I was able to develop what is in effect a false biography. That's been a really interesting challenge for me, because having done shows about Jolson and Susan Boyle, where you're dealing with an actual bio-pic, it's been okay to put in what seem like larger than life moments, whereas if you're creating a journey for a group that don't exist, in a way it's harder.”

The idea, according to Stewart, was “one of those light-bulb moments. I went through that whole sixties, seventies, eighties club scene, and I remember the concert secretaries and club managers and agents, and all these stories started flowing”

Having worked his way through the club circuit since he was a teenager en route to Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Stewart has seen the damage such a drive for fame at any cost can cause.

“If you look at anyone who is successful in any business,” he says, “then they're hard, and at some point they get a name for being a bastard, and you can see that in the play. If you look at Andy's character you think he's a really nice guy, you look at Grant and think he's a daft wee boy, but Alec isn't, and he's like that from the start, and if you look at the history of acts that have been together for years and split up, generally one of them will be successful and the other won't. It's the same in the pop world, and in the play Alec is the one who clawed his way back.”

Later, sitting on the same sofa, this is something Gray and Stott also recognise.

“You hear stories all the time,” says Gray, who proceeds to tell two. The first is about a double act who were at the height of their fame. By all accounts they travelled separately, stayed in different hotels and disliked each other so much that they only ever met onstage.

The second story concerns a well known TV sitcom star he performed alongside several years ago, and who was “probably the most bitter person I've met in my life. He was deeply unhappy that his career had never continued the way he wanted it to. He was done in by the business, and had a huge chip on his shoulder because he didn't get what he wanted.”

In Canned Laughter, “I think Gus is as ambitious as Alec,” says Gray, “but he's less honest about it.”

As for Rory, “He's just there for the ride,” says Stott. “He's having a great time and is loving every minute of it. What I like about the play is that we still get to do all these comedy routines that people will know and can have a laugh at, but because we do it under the auspices of this fiction, we then step out of that and you see all the other stuff as well.”

While pantomime brought the trio together over the last decade at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh, Gray, Stewart and Stott categorically aren't a triple act, and while all involved in Canned Laughter are steeped in showbusiness, they come from very different backgrounds.

Gray has been a familiar face on stage, screen and radio for over thirty years, ever since his days as part of the comedy sketch show team behind Naked Radio and Naked Video. Gray then went on to form a double act of sorts with the late Gerard Kelly in TV sitcom City Lights. He and Kelly also appeared together onstage in a production of Neil Simon's play, The Odd Couple. Later, the pair acted in Marie Jones' play, Stones in his Pockets.

Stott, meanwhile, has worked as a successful TV and radio presenter for more than two decades, and regularly hosts Edinburgh's Hogmanay's Concert in the Gardens. He first joined Gray and Stewart in pantomime in 2006, and now regularly plays the villain.

On the back of this, Gray and Stott toured in Kiss Me Honey Honey!, a play by Philip Meeks in which the pair played a mismatched duo of middle-aged men in search of the perfect woman. More recently they did an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run of Willie and Sebastian, a study by Rab C Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison of Soho bohemians Willie Donaldson and Sebastian Horsley, a very different kind of real life double act.

As Stewart has indicated, he moved through the club circuit to TV work alongside the likes of Les Dennis and Bobby Davro. He performed at the Royal Variety Show, and hosted a series of showcases for up and coming comedians.

In the early 1980s, Stewart was briefly part of a double act with fellow performer Aidan J Harvey. Les Dennis' partnership with Dustin Gee had ended following Gee's death, and Stewart's management saw a gap in the market.

“What they did wrong,” says Stewart, “was they started getting us television shows three weeks after they had the idea, when we weren't a double act yet. If they'd waited a year, after we'd done summer seasons and panto, it would have worked, but they put us on television too early.”

Then again, “I didn't really like being a double act. I'm a single act.”

Today Stewart sticks to his roots by playing the cruise ship circuit, and on dry land has hosted two editions of Allan Stewart's Big Big Variety Show at the King's. Here he has revisited the era Canned Laughter depicts for real. with a all star bill of comedians, crooners and novelty acts that play to packed houses. Gray and Stott have both appeared in the shows, taking part in comic sketches which audiences familiar with their panto routines lapped up.

“I'm a ham,” says Stewart. I work the cruise ships because the clubs aren't there anymore, but things move in cycles, and they're coming back. In the meantime I get to do what is in my blood. “

Canned Laughter, Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, March 9-12; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 15-19; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, March 24-26; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, March 29-April 2.
www.onfife.com
www.atgtickets.com
www.aberdeenperformingarts.com
www.edtheatres.com

The Herald, February 2th 2016

ends

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