Being Tommy Cooper at The Old Red Lion*****

‘Police arrested two kids yesterday, one was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.’

On arrival at the Old Red Lion Theatre, a two-minute stroll from the Angel tube, I was handed the programme for Being Tommy Cooper, in it are a sample of Cooper gags, which immediately brought a smile to my face.

I should just mention the venue, which was also very pleasing. A large, Victorian London pub with a theatre space upstairs. Whereupon enquiring about the beers, the barman poured me a taster to make sure I liked the ‘nutty flavour’ he described - an attention to detail that endeared me to the place and one that I shall definitely visit again. They’re doing Henry V next! Henry V and you're allowed to take your drink into the theatre. I digress.

In order for a piece like Being Tommy Cooper to work, the namesake has to live up to the legend that he is portraying. That is indeed a very tall order and something that you would think impossible. Not so. Damian Williams performance as Tommy blew me away. He is dynamic. Utterly convincing and very moving.

His supporting cast, James Benson as Miff Ferrie, Tommy’s agent and Gerard McDermott as Billy Glasson, a pushy American gag writer, were also convincing and totally believable as poignant figures in Tommy’s life.

I think I would spoil the play by describing its plot and story in detail. Suffice to say that it is one of the most stunning evenings I have spent in the theatre. Entertaining, funny and a fascinating insight into a Tommy Cooper that we knew far less about, as revealed by the discovery of Miff Ferrie’s journals.

I could not find fault in Cecily Boys' direction or indeed in Tom Green's writing. The set and lighting, Zahra Mansouri and Simeon Miller respectively, managed to convey a casino, a hotel room, Las Vegas stage (including footlights) and a grubby agent's office, brilliantly.

A great evening out, where I found myself belly-laughing one minute and gasping with shock the next.

Two fat blokes in a pub, one says to the other ‘Your round.’ The other one says: ‘So are you, you fat slob’.

Paul Henley Washford

Being Tommy Cooper runs until July 21 at The Old Red Lion Theatre, St John Street, Islington.

Details: 020 7833 3053, www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk

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