Tears of a clown stories can be a gift to a playwright. All the necessary tension and conflict is inbuilt, you just have to work on drawing it out for the audience. Oh Hello!, Dave Ainsworth’s 2004 play about Carry On… actor Charles Hawtrey‘s twilight years is a fine example. The play sees the cinema star isolate himself from friends and colleagues through booze and bitchiness, brought on by perceived slights and lack of appreciation. Torch Theatre‘s revival, expertly acted by Jamie Rees, was well received last Fringe, and from the sell-out crowd seems no less popular this year.
As is now well known, the jolly on-screen antics of the Carry On… crew contrasted with the inner sadnesses of some cast members. High camp and sexual innuendo may have been OK for films in the free-love 60s, but homosexual acts remained illegal. Thirty years later and Hawtrey, and fellow “queen” Kenneth Williams, would have been no more conflicted about their sexuality than Graham Norton and Alan Carr, but this was a different generation, and such behaviour had to be kept under wraps. Thus there was always an extra element of facade about both actors, with their implausible casting in straight roles and their turbulent, but secretive private lives. Tragically, it badly damaged them during their lifetimes (may they rest in peace), but now, it makes for fascinating biography.
Rees, as Hawtrey, breaks the fourth wall immediately, arriving from outside in the corridor as a paying audience member. The voice hits you first, very convincingly, then the physicality, then the turns of phrase. He might not be the complete spitting image, but Rees is absolutely effective in the role. He gives an impressive performance.
Timewise, we start with filming for 1961’s Carry On Regardless and end with his hospitalisation shortly before his death in 1988. Drink is Hawtrey’s constant companion, through the death of his mother, the slow death of his career, and his retirement to Deal in Kent where he becomes the local eccentric celeb. The compulsion to drink is there from the start. Early on, it is heavy, but almost social – an actor unwinding after a hard day on set – but he is soon killing demons with it. He’s drinking because of the fit young crew members that prowl tantalisingly round set, he’s drinking because he can’t get the billing he wants on the films, he’s drinking because no-one knows he “played alongside Will Hay and was directed by Hitchcock”.
In the process, Hawtrey comes across as vain, short-tempered and divaish, yet you’re never unsympathetic to him. Like his onscreen characters, he’s first and foremost very loveable, and looks like he needs a hug. He may also have a point about the less than generous terms on which the actors were employed on films that made millions, so you don’t begrudge him a strop or two. The attachment to his mother, who has dementia, and who joins him on set is also endearing.
Above all, though, he is gloriously indiscreet. The play is rich in anecdotal detail, Hawtrey talking informally to us about behind the scenes goings-on. Everyone is spoken of in very luvvy tones – Kenny (Williams) did this, and Joanie (Sims) did that. Barbara Windsor sounds delightful. The fractious relationship with Williams comes across very strongly, aided by a hilariously accurate impersonation of the man by Rees (still in character as Hawtrey). Williams was much less at ease with his homosexuality and Hawtrey is on the receiving end of much bitchiness.
Aided in no small part by Rees’ excellent performance, Oh, Hello! is a beautiful character study of an intriguing actor. He never did make top billing, but he has earned himself a touching little tribute in this play.