In order to put on a really successful one-person show, there are two main elements that have to be in place. The first is an engaging story that will capture the attention, and secondly a performer that can instantly connect with the audience and have them on his or her side throughout. A brilliant practitioner of the one man show principles described above is writer/actor Jack Lane who has brought his show Wisdom of a Fool to the Lost Theatre.
Wisdom of a Fool is a lovely walk through the life of one of the funniest entertainers ever to have graced the stage – Sir Norman Wisdom. Jack plays Norman and plays the part to perfection. From the moment he walks onstage, Jack brings every mannerism and quirky gesture so beloved of the great man to life. In addition, though, Jack also plays thirty other characters that Norman encounters through his life. Included in this list are Norman’s parents, celebrities like Rex Harrison, and David Nixon, theatrical impresario Val Parnell and a suspiciously mobile civil servant by the name of Hobson to name but a few. Each character is distinct and separate from the others but above them all, it is Norman that really stands out.
And let’s be honest, Norman’s story is pretty amazing. If he had been in another century, Norman’s life could easily have been the basis for the opera Pagliacci – the story of a performer who hides his personal sadness behind the mask of a clown. Abandoned by his mother, beaten by his father, Norman fitted a heck of a lot in his early years. Running away from home, walking to Cardiff and joining the army whilst underage are just some of his accomplishments before his fifteenth birthday.
Jack has obviously carried out a lot of research to put Wisdom of a Fool together – indeed, he acknowledges the assistance of Norman’s children, Nick and Jacqui in not only providing family detail but also for the loan of Norman’s original ‘Gump’ suit. The research really shows with the wealth of detail that comes out but this is not just a list of biographical data, though with Norman’s rich and varied life that would be interesting by itself. Jack provides a first-rate performance which really shows his affection and admiration of Norman and his works.
The one problem is that there is so much to Norman’s life that it is impossible to get through it all in a two-act play. As I was leaving, I heard some other members of the audience saying that the ending was too sudden and I sort of agree with them. This is a play that leaves its audience really craving more and I really hope that Jack does another version covering Norman’s later life and his – for want of a better word – second burst of fame in the 1980s and 90s. However, until that is written, we will have to be content with this first-rate show that is respectful but never sycophantic to the memory of Norman. Thanks to Jack, I feel sure that the memory of one of Britain’s finest comic institutions will live on forever so that “Norman Pitkin’s” desperate cry, “Mr Grimsdale” will continue to raise a knowing laugh whenever and wherever it is heard. A first-rate performance that pays perfect homage to the one and only Norman.
Review by Terry Eastham
Norman Wisdom dominated British film and theatre during the 1950s, playing to packed audiences across the country. For more than six decades Norman’s warmth and boundless energy won the hearts of millions. His cloth cap, ill-fitting suit and classic underdog character led Charlie Chaplin to describe him as his ‘favourite clown’. Norman Wisdom now returns to the stage in Jack Lane’s acclaimed emotional roller-coaster one-man play, now on UK tour in 2016-7.
In Wisdom of a Fool, Jack Lane takes you behind Norman Wisdom’s well-known character to reveal a tough and lonely childhood. After joining the Army, Wisdom discovers a passion for comedy; and the world of post-war Music Hall and Variety embraces Norman’s manic slapstick routine, catapulting him to stardom in the early 1950s. Success on the silver screen, including the hit song, ‘Don’t Laugh at Me’, seals his fame. But fame comes at a price… Jack plays 30 characters throughout this tour de force performance. The Gump costume that features in the play belonged to Norman and has been generously loaned to the production by his son and daughter, Nicholas and Jacqueline Wisdom.
WISDOM OF A FOOL
March 8th – March 11th 2017, LOST Theatre
Wisdom of a Fool
Writer/Performer Jack Lane
Additional material Martyn Bell
Music and direction Kenny Clayton
Producers Engine Shed and David Phillips
LOST Theatre, 208 Wandsworth Road, London, SW8 2JU