(This is a not-for-class review.)
Impersonating a deceased performer for the sake of one final appearance is not a new phenomenon, and even in the past few years, such high profile pieces as “Golda's Balcony” and “Say Goodnight, Gracie” have visited the American stage and presented the audience with a retrospective and history on the deceased's life. The act of bringing back a dead comedian, though, especially with the prerogative of continuing their work, can be a bit more challenging. Unfortunately, this is the task writers Chas Early and Richard Hurst have set upon themselves in "Bill Hicks: Slight Return".
"Slight Return"'s premise is simple enough: Bill Hicks can return from heaven for one hour by possessing an unknown British actor (Early) in order to deliver his final show. The material covers a standard range of topics for Hicks fans: drugs, porn, pop music, career failure, and a hatred for all things Bush. Problematically, much of it relies upon retrofitting new words into older jokes. These sequences, including a comparison of beer and hallucinogenic mushrooms (originally pitting beer against marijuana), tend to feel like demo material or placeholder gags - a new bit would be more appropriate, but the current one must do in the meantime.
Another area of issue is the use of Hicks's stage personalities, such as "Randy Pan, the Goat Boy". A character with an affinity for performing oral sex on underage girls was shocking back in 1993, especially when played with the sense of mischief and playfulness Hicks instilled. However, Early plays the character as fan bait, and gives us little to be shocked about after a decade of South Park.
Third, Early and Hurst have also chosen to take on some of Hicks's enemies from his lifetime, specifically the David Letterman show, and (more viciously), Denis Leary. While Hicks would gave some particularly memorable rants after being censored from Letterman, his feud with Leary was kept off the stage, as is standard among stand up artists. Including such a tirade here borders on petty fan squabbling and comes across as out of character, and placing such a reliance on Hicks knowledge outside of his discography alienates anybody who is not a die hard fan.
That said, much of the new material is quite humourous (despite its rougher edges), though the best moments come when the show is at its most original: Bill discovering the internet, a look at the upcoming American elections, and a shift into the philosophical towards the finale all come across with a genuine manner, where Early goes beyond being a fan playing his hero and begins to truly channel the spirit of Hicks. By trying so hard to make the new material sound like the old, the audience is denied the continued evolution that Hicks's material would have surely had if not for his untimely demise.
Despite having to cancel the prior week's performances due to laryngitis, Early does a solid job of bringing out the physical and vocal mannerisms of Bill Hicks in addition to his written contributions, and was capable of winning over a lukewarm Wednesday night crowd. Author Hurst doubled as director, and has kept Early's performance in line, though some minor work on the evening's order (a promise of low brow humour was left unfulfilled) would help.
Overall, "Slight Return" is an enjoyable, if not flawed hour at the theatre. It may lack the depth and power of its target's original performances, but it's more than successful at reminding us of why people fell in love with Bill Hicks in the first place. Sadly, its problems ultimately serve to enhance the show's closing point: Bill Hicks is dead, he will not be coming back, and it is up to us to seek the new voices and talents that can continue his message to evolve our ideas and ourselves.
Where: Arts Theatre, London
When: 26-29 Sep, 3-6 Oct. All shows at 19:30.
Cost: £17.50, £15 (back row stalls, back row circle)
Performance reviewed: 26 Sep 07, 19:30.
RZ unofficial “worth paying” : £15 for Hicks fans, don't bother going otherwise.
RZ other notes: The Arts Theatre is a small Off-Broadway sized space. The view is fine throughout the theatre, including the stalls under the overhang from the circle. The ushers are cool, and you can probably move up a few rows if it's not a heavily sold performance.