Backstage: The Jim Tavare benefit night

Posted on June 16, 2017 by Matthew Willetts

Over 500 people packed into the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury avenue, to enjoy a comedy show that only comes around once in a lifetime. There seemed more stars than the night sky. All giving their time free to support their colleague Jim Tavare who had been through an horrendous car accident and now faced with medical bills which would make even Lord Sugar shiver.

The show opened with a recorded message from Jim welcoming everyone and introducing Arthur Smith who compered the first half with typical approach of attack and self-deprecation, grabbing his audience immediately in an atmosphere full of positive comedic anticipation, which one would like to bottle and take home. Zoe Lyons opened showing a warmth that endeared the audience to her with often physically acted out material. Milton Jones followed in his usual bright shirt which screams at you alongside his wonderfully crafted, subtle one liners.

As other artistes began to arrive only one dressing room was needed, as the small area at the side of the stage acted as a make shift green room with settee and a table stacked nicely with an assortment of alcoholic beverages which were enthusiastically sipped by all as the show continued.

Gina Yashere had flown in from New York where her career is blossoming, arriving only minutes after touch down. Fighting the jet lag, she went into a routine about how food in the states is measured by length. Stewart Lee, known as anti-comedian telling it straight shared a long story of him and Jim in Ireland. This anecdote was completely different from the material normally associated with Stewart and came straight from the heart.

Backstage was beginning to fill up, as an impromptu party was now occurring in the wings, helped by the table bar. There being no specific green room space at the Lyric (which is currently housing the Michael Jackson’s ’Thriller’ production in the week), the wings stage right was the only space available to hold this ongoing and unplanned social event. From time to time my phone (on silent) received calls and texts from the frustrated Jim (Tavare) laying on his Los Angeles bed, desperately wanting to be a physical part of the show – not just in name.

Jo Brand who had helped, like no other act to promote this benefit on radio programmes, comes across as ever one’s aunty. She has a sweet genuine manner with wry humour, indeed on stage she asked ‘I wonder how Jim is’? Back came a full report from one of the boxes. ‘Who are you’? asked Jo. ‘I’m Jim’s sister in law’, who possibly had enjoyed the pre-bar. Jo Brand is edging her way to what has come to be known as a ‘national treasure’ in this country. This may be surprising hearing Arthur ask her ‘So when did you stop being a Sea Monster’? This a reference to Jo’s early name on the comedy circuit as the two reminisced on the alternative comedy era, responsible for where we are today in comedy.

The party was in full flow in the wings and Arthur Smith was prowling backstage and naughtily helping himself to a wig from the show ‘Thriller’ prop box, promptly putting it on his head, while pacing up and down dreaming up some suitable material. On he went. ‘I hope that’s not our wig?’ said the ‘Thriller’ stage manager who was helping backstage. ‘No … No’ said a cast member. Only to be let down by a returning Smith, asked by the SM ‘Is that our wig’? ‘Yes!’ he replied.

Closing the first half was a ‘comedians, comedian’ many had come to see – Harry Hill. Such is his creative respect you could not find a decent spot in the wings to peer through a curtain or look over someone’s shoulder as every gap had been quickly taken, to view this man working. Letting us all in on his surreal world, while using the stage to its full capacity with movement and comic mannerisms that only Hill can deliver. Having suffered a couple of drop outs there was more time in the show. Approaching Harry at rehearsal he knew what was coming. ‘You’d like me to do more Matthew’? ‘That would be nice Harry’ I said. ‘I’ll finish on a song then’ looking at his digital device, myself quickly calling the sound tech to run it through just as the nod came to let the audience in. ‘Two minutes. please’ was my request. Harry calmly only went half way through it, before deciding it was okay. Leaving the stage just as the audience were let in.

In the second half, compere Tim Clark took over the running of the show from Arthur. In typical ‘Clarkie’ style, he chatted casually to the front row, extending comic moments from their replies. The unanticipated small gap was nicely filled by Dave Thompson who has been gigging all round Europe to step up to the plate, delivering some physically wild material inter dispersed with crafty one liners.

The interval, had served the backstage party well, with the call for ‘more beers’ went out over the call for ‘second half beginners’, as artistes held glasses over expensive technical equipment much to the concern of the ‘Thriller’ stage manager who was still looking for Arthur. The call and nods of heads for the start of the half only served to allow those who were needed to put down their glass. Tavare laying on his bed at home put another call in – ‘What’s going on down there’?

Paul Chowdhry is gaining his own personal following of fans, winning this crowd over by sharing how his Asian looks and thick black beard, can scare the living daylights out of people, particularly readers of the Daily Mirror. Hal Cruttenden’s gentle approach has always capitulated his audience and the softly, softly, catch a funny, always works well. By the time Hal left the stage we had run out of beer and the wine was now the only choice of beverage available.

Dara O’Briain has a way of engaging his audience in the first few lines by astutely picking on something that has earlier happened in the room. This time, he was the only comic to pay reference to Michael Jackson’s ’Thriller’ production, such a reference brought the house down. Paul Zerdin fresh from his ‘American Got Talent’ win and his own show on the Las Vegas strip, showed a different and original aspect of ventriloquism, by bringing two people up from stage, sitting them down with face mask apparatus quickly applied and moving into a sit-com scene between the two with the hilarious voices all supplied by Zerdin.

This had been a night to remember with twitter and Facebook alive with immediate comments. Denis McCourt ‘What a great night you put on. It was one of the best comedy events I have been to in a long time and I could not stop laughing all night’.

After clearing up some of us decamped to the upstairs of the Lyric pub opposite the theatre. A space we had to ourselves until right into the early hours. What was nice as we chatted around the table, as Jim’s final call of the night came in requesting a critical Michael Billington theatre style review of the night, it was his best friends left around the table, as the phone passed between them to speak. A moment that remains personal to those who were there, and praying that the Jim Tavare comedian and person we all know can return with the talent and performance skills he undoubtedly possesses.

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About the author

Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectures (part-time) at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio. He is often quoted in the national press and  media publications as well as speaking regularly at festivals,  industry conferences and a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.


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