Comedy tonight

Joey - King of Clowns, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (27/28 October 2007)Every now again you come across a one-man show so born out of commitment to the subject, so well researched and performed that it's a real gem.

Joey - King of Clowns, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (27/28 October 2007)

Every now again you come across a one-man show so born out of commitment to the subject, so well researched and performed that it's a real gem. Joey - King of Clowns, Tony Lidington's portrait of the great early nineteenth century clown, Joseph Grimaldi, is just that.

We begin in front of the curtain with Grimaldi still in his forties, a physical wreck helped to a chair and barely able to move. He's had a lifetime of putting his body through intolerable strains. But he can reminisce. As he begins, the curtain rises and we're back in Georgian theatre days with Grimaldi singing and performing.

Lidington both entertains us and does us a great service by bringing us up to speed about where clowning comes from.


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The clown's association with the circus sometimes obscures the character's wider significance in the theatre. The figure's historic roots make sense of much that's happened on the popular entertainment stage for the last two centuries.

To be truthful, the more you follow the trail back the more impenetrable it gets. In Europe, anyway, the clown - not necessarily masked and painted - has links with the Fool figure we see in Shakespeare, the protected outcast who has the licence to mock and speak out. The fool's freedom to speak directly to the audience has always been vital. Court jesters, jugglers, acrobats and the commedia del arte, Punch and Judy and pantomime are all in the history mix.

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Grimaldi's a fascinating subject. He suffered a bullied, poverty-stricken, and painful life - 'I'm Grim All Day but I make you laugh at night,' he punned. Professionally, his creation of the hugely popular Joey comes at an important time in the development of what Lidington calls low brow entertainment. This was the era before music-hall theatres. Grimaldi's venues were Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden where he introduced Joey and enjoyed his greatest success in Harlequin and Mother Goose.

What a show we're given - with puppets, a real slap stick, a saucepan-hitting and custard pie routine with his able stooge, Gary Bridgens and a whole array of odd musical instruments stretching right across the orchestra pit played by a bewigged Jake Rodrigues.

There's a sing-song with the audience, pantomime routines, modern allusions, and contemporary references to the riots, fires and even deaths in the Georgian theatre.

This is a show I shall do my best to see again. Terrific. It deserved, but sadly didn't get, a big audience.

Ivan Howlett

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