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Bill Hicks: Slight Return

A string of recent shows have attempted to recreate the genius of stars, or fictional characters from the world of entertainment, for example: 'Pete and Dud Come Again', 'Steptoe and Son: Murder at Oildrum Lane', 'Ying Tong' and 'Sinatra at the London Palladium'. 'Bill Hicks: Slight Return' is a similar show featuring the immense talent of American comedian Bill Hicks, who died of cancer in 1994. Widely regarded as something of a genius in comedy circles, Hicks still has a considerable cult following, so it's little wonder that 'Bill Hicks: Slight Return' has already enjoyed highly successful runs at the Edinburgh Festival as well as at the Soho Theatre in London, and on a wide-ranging tour.

Hicks' ranting style has often been compared to that of fellow American comedian Lenny Bruce, though apparently Hicks claimed that he knew little about Bruce's work. What they share is a dark sense of humour, spontaneity and a preference for 'frank' language, which in the case of Bruce, resulted in many arrests for obscenity. Hicks was well-known for his penchant for tirades - often railing about subjects such as guns, politics, hypocrisy and religion - as well as an almost obsessional interest in sex.

Staging this kind of 'revival' show presents a number of problems, not least of which is how to 'set-up' the piece and bring the character(s) 'back to life'. Here, the show starts with 'Hicks' addressing the audience from back-stage, and then duly returning from heaven complete with wings. It's an uncomfortable way to begin, and it felt at odds with a comedian renowned for earthy frankness and scathing, uninhibited wit. In a way, the opening felt rather 'English' and contrived. However, the remainder of the performance was basically a recreation of a one-man, stand-up show, and thus proved much more pertinent and appropriate.

Although Chas Early as Hicks is the only performer, it might be more appropriate to describe it as a two-man show, because Early co-wrote the script with Richard Hurst, who also directs. They've incorporated some biographical elements, and have considered what Hicks might have made of some of the more notable events since his death. So, subjects such as George Bush, drugs, the National Rifle Association, smoking and even 9/11 become the focus of Hicks' imaginary scrutiny.

I couldn't remember having seen Hicks before, so when I returned from the theatre I did a little digging around on the internet and found some video clips of Hicks which were incredibly funny - much funnier than Early and Hurst's script. For example, one clip was of Hicks talking about America arming small countries, likening the situation to Jack Palance in the film 'Shane', where Palance throws a gun down at a farmer's feet and instructs the man to pick up the gun, and when he does, Palance promptly shoots him. This clip is certainly as close as one can get to comic genius, not only because of the concept but also because of the near-perfect delivery and timing in the performance. In another clip, set in what appeared to be a small nightclub, a more rambling and spontaneous Hicks was on fine form, sparking off the audience, and on occasions, railing against them.

Unfortunately, Chas Early never really managed to get involved with the audience as Hicks clearly did, and though the script certainly has some Hicks-like lines such as 'If you don't eat your social comments, you don't get dick jokes for desert', it fell short of the kind of truly off-beat and highly original musings of Hicks himself. Yet at the same time, Early comes as close as it might be possible to get to a convincing impersonation of Hicks. It's certainly a carefully timed and well-delivered performance of considerable quality. But, though Early kept the audience hooked, he never landed the really big laughs. In fact, I found the audience's reaction rather muted and subdued. And although I laughed out loud at several gags, I never felt about to encounter that kind of uncontrollable, gut-aching laughter which I have experienced when seeing comedians such as Eddie Izzard, or indeed coming very close to it as I did later when watching the video clips of Hicks.

If this kind of 'revival' show has merit, it's to give modern day audiences a 'taste' or an appreciation of lost genius. And on that level, 'Bill Hicks: Slight Return' succeeds. But though the script is faithful and polished, and the impersonation of a very high quality, it never really hits quite the level that Hicks managed to achieve. So, clever and intelligent though this show certainly is, it leaves one feeling just a little 'cheated', and wondering how much real value there is in revival shows of this kind.


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