Octagon Bolton

Until May 8

Box office: 01204 520661

WHAT makes you laugh? Is it a joke about a dead celebrity, or a mother-in-law, or an Irishman?

What’s behind the laugh? That’s the question that Trevor Griffiths’ ferociously intense play, set in 1975 just before punk exploded and comedy was changed forever, sets out to explore.

Kieran Hill is fascinating and terrifying as Gethin Price, the uncompromising young comedian whose red-rimmed eyes and mohawk suggest Travis Bickle, should he have turned to stand-up rather than wanton violence, although Hill’s performance suggests his character could tip over into the latter at any moment.

In contrast, Richard Moore’s portrayal of the philosopher-comedian Eddie Waters is compassionate and humane, tinged with melancholy but still optimistic that the ramshackle collection of students he teaches in a nondescript room can still find truth and beauty through the comedic art. The chemistry between the two is one of the most notable things about the play. You can practically see the tension vibrating uncomfortably between the older comedian and his young protégé.

Mark Letheren’s character couldn’t be any further from the easy charm he showed in And Did Those Feet. As Phil Murray, the nervy, snappy straight man too uncertain of the double act he has created with his brother Ged (played by Huw Higginson, another Octagon regular warmly welcomed back), he is brilliantly desperate.

The structure of the play is like that of a good joke, with tension built and then released with a great punchline. Some of the subject matter might not be as relevant now, when our idea of comedy is more complicated, but thanks to the outstanding cast and direction at the Octagon, it is Trevor Griffiths who has the last laugh.