Theatre preview: Being Tommy Cooper, Edinburgh

Damian Williams as Tommy Cooper. Picture: complimentary
Damian Williams as Tommy Cooper. Picture: complimentary
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Liam Rudden looks back on the life of a comedy great with actor Damian Williams

In Las Vegas in 1954, Tommy Cooper confronts the prospect of his first big failure. As personal and professional problems collide, he faces stark choices about the future. And so the stage is set for Being Tommy Cooper, which tours to the Royal Lyceum for one night only on Monday.

Packed with classic lines and hilarious routines, Tom Green’s play celebrates one of the UK’s best loved comedians, while exploring the darker side of the man so often portrayed as a gentle giant.

It also tells the story of three other people in Tommy’s life; his dour Scottish manager Miff Ferrie, with whom Tommy is locked in ‘a hate-hate relationship’; Billy Glason, a one time vaudeville act who has set himself the almost impossible task of selling Cooper a huge collection of jokes; and Mary Kay – the woman who Tommy fell in love with and came to rely on.

There was only one woman she couldn’t compete with - Tommy’s wife.

Damian Williams, who plays the legendary funnyman in the piece, admits that Tommy Cooper is his dream role.

“Tommy is one of my comedy heroes. I grew up watching him along with Morecambe and Wise, Les Dawson and Laurel and Hardy, and many other old-school comedians. I was so influenced by them that I decided from an early age that was what I wanted to do, to be a performer, to make people laugh.”

Williams didn’t hang about either, becoming an actor at just 15.

“I joined a Rep theatre company and learnt my craft. Twenty seven years later, I’m playing my hero, a genius and a true comedy legend.

“Because I’ve always been a fan of his, I do know a lot of his routines, but the difficulty in being Tommy Cooper is mastering the scenes when Tommy isn’t performing, when he’s being himself.

“There are no recordings of him when he isn’t ‘Being Tommy Cooper’. He was always ‘on’, playing up to the camera. He never gave anything of himself away.

“There is one documentary called The Untold Tommy Cooper where they are talking to him and you can see he is tired. They say ‘This must be exhausting...’ and there is this one line where he is not being Tommy Cooper, he says, ‘Yes, it is’.

“I have this one sentence to work out what he’s like when he’s not ‘on’.”

Born in Caerphilly, South Wales, in 1921, as a child Cooper helped his mum and dad run their ice cream van.

At the age of eight an aunt bought him a magic set, starting him on the path that would lead to fame.

“Basically, the play charts Tommy’s life, it’s all about him and how he was, both as a performer and as a person,” says Williams.

“It’s a brilliant play because people are obsessed with him in this country. It’s very truthful so it’s all about his dark side as well as his genius, and that’s what’s great about it - you get the whole story.”

A heavy drinker and smoker in later life, Cooper’s excesses took their toll on his health and, although he kept working throughout, Cooper’s decline was noticeable to those around him

Despite the tragic nature of many aspects of his life, however, Williams insists that Being Tommy Cooper is a joyous celebration of his genius.

“It’s a great night out, as you get all the laughs, but there’s also a side of him that nobody knew. There are things about him that I didn’t know until I’d read the script that the writer Tom Green had found out. So it’s a fantastic play.”

Cooper famously took his leave of this world during a live broadcast of Live From Her Majesty’s, as millions of viewers looked on in horror.

Williams, who visited that very theatre on the anniversary of Cooper’s death this year, recalls, “It was a weird feeling walking in the same stage door he walked in that night; entering from stage left, the same side he entered and standing in the middle of the stage where he stood for the last time.

“Goose-bumps, hairs standing on the back of my neck, shivers - I experienced them all standing there.

“A member of the crew appeared and said, ‘That’s where he died,’ pointing to the prop store stage left, ‘They dragged him into there, and that’s where he died’.

“I followed them into the tiny room and just stood there trying to look for signs of Tommy.

“Of course there weren’t any.”

• Being Tommy Cooper, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, Monday, 7.30pm, £14-£19.50, 0131-248 4848