On entering The Playhouse, Weston, the stage was set with dust-sheeted objects, many of which stamped with ‘Rank Organisation’, a pre-curser to what may be hiding underneath. Suddenly the sound of the BBC News rings out, transporting us back to October 2010, and the news that Sir Norman Wisdom has died. It is a sad and profound beginning to the evening, however within a couple of seconds the inimitable Jack Lane as Norman Wisdom quite literally stumbles onto the stage, giggling and tripping as he goes. The mood has changed, we are smiling and laughing, and from his first comedy fall and the flash of his bright yellow socks beneath too-short trousers, he has us all in the palm of his hands.
The voice of Mr Grimsdale asks Norman to share with us his history, to which Norman appears uncertain, far happier in character. Revealing the truth behind the clown is going to be a much harder task. We witness Norman the toddler and his relationship with his caring and obviously inspirational Mother, his close bond with his brother Fred, however the mood turns again as his abusive Father takes centre stage. Jack portrays these characters with a different voice and such astoundingly diverse physicality that the audience are in no doubt as to when this one-man dynamo transforms from one person to the next.
Norman’s childhood was not a happy or stable one and his early working life was no different, moving county and even country losing job after job, finally taking one onboard a ship, only to return to face Christmas alone. Witnessing the complete rejection of his father, the acceptance and obvious joy he got from serving in the British Army and even the reunion with his brother Fred after decades apart, leaves us dealing with emotions that are as varied and diverse as the change of Norman’s employment!
Finally, we move with him into the world of theatre, and with that comes meeting his wife Freda and his beloved car! There is a beautiful scene as he sits in this tiny car and takes a toy bride and groom from his suit pocket. This time Jack is the Vicar who marries Norman and Freda, but it is the catch in Norman’s voice as he recalls Freda’s beauty that hints at the sadness ahead. He speaks so proudly and lovingly of his children and we learn of Freda leaving him as he works himself into the ground, which he recalls without a hint of bitterness but with masses of love.
The scene that steals the show however is the creation of The Gump. The costume having actually belonged to Norman and loaned to the production by his son and daughter, we, as an audience, are left breathless. With ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ playing in the background, he dresses himself, first trousers, then wonky tie, the too tight jacket and finally the cap. There are gasps from the audience as, with a subtle twist and angle of the cap peak, his transformation is complete.
The journey through his career continues as Jack becomes Agents, Producers and Directors, and Norman steadfastly sticks to his guns to create the roles for which he is so loved and so fondly remembered, with a beautiful rendition of ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’ sending shivers down our spines.
The play comes full circle, back to the voice of Mr Grimsdale telling Norman he doesn’t have much time left, and finishes with Jack singing ‘Wisdom of a Fool’, however he then stands back as an original recording of Norman echoes around the auditorium and the final moments of the play are his.
I cannot recommend this play highly enough, Jack Lane who not only stars in but wrote this play is one of the most accomplished and dynamic actors I have seen perform live. Within the performance he played over 30 different characters, each with a different voice and physical presence. The stage craft is also very cleverly done, as the dust sheets are whipped off to create new scenes and props switched before your very eyes on and off stage, it is obviously a very slick production, that has quite rightly earned critical acclaim, five-star reviews and standing ovations. It is not just for those who remember Norman from their youth, it is a story that will touch anyone, a story of life and growth, love and death, comedy and tragedy. In the spirit of all good theatre it really does have it all, and will leave you laughing and crying in equal measure. Sir Norman Wisdom, a wise fool indeed and Jack Lane whose star is definitely smiling on him.
See what else is on at Playhouse, Weston here